Growing Up as a Neural Stem Cell: The Importance of Clinging Together and then Letting Go

Can one feel too attached? Does one need to let go to mature? Neural stem cells have this problem, too.

As immature cells, neural stem cells must stick together in a protected environment called a niche in order to divide so they can make all of the cells that populate the nervous system. But when it’s time to mature, or differentiate, the neural stem cells must stop dividing, detach from their neighbors and migrate to where they are needed to form the circuits necessary for humans to think, feel and interact with the world.

Now, stem cell researchers at UCLA have identified new components of the genetic pathway that controls the adhesive properties and proliferation of neural stem cells and the formation of neurons in early development.

The finding by scientists at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA could be important because errors in this pathway can lead to a variety of birth defects that affect the structure of the nervous system, as well as more subtle changes that impair cognitive and motor functions associated with disorders such as autism.

The results of the four-year study are published April 26, 2012 in the peer-reviewed journal Neuron.