Higher mammals, such as humans, have markedly larger brains than other mammals. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden recently discovered a new mechanism governing brain stem cell proliferation.
Hirn-Stammzellen (rot) in der embryonalen Großhirnrinde der Maus (Zellkerne: blau).
© MPI f. molekulare Zellbiologie und Genetik, Dresden/ D. Stenzel
It serves to boost the production of neurons during development, thus causing the enlargement of the cerebral cortex – the part of the brain that enables us humans to speak, think and dream. The surprising discovery made by the Dresden-based researchers: two components in the stem cell environment – the extracellular matrix and thyroid hormones – work together with a protein molecule found on the stem cell surface, a so-called integrin.
This likely explains why iodine deficiency in pregnant women has disastrous consequences for the unborn child, affecting its brain development adversely – without iodine, no thyroid hormones are produced. “Our study highlights this relationship and provides a potential explanation for the condition neurologists refer to as cretinism”, says Wieland Huttner, Director at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden. This neurological disorder severely impairs the mental abilities of a person.
In the course of evolution, certain mammals, notably humans, have developed larger brains than others, and therefore more advanced cognitive abilities. Mice, for example, have brains that are around a thousand times smaller than the human one. In their study, which was conducted in cooperation with the Fritz Lipmann Institute in Jena, the researchers in Dresden wanted to identify factors that determine brain development, and understand how larger brains have evolved.
A cosy bed for brain stem cells
Brain neurons are generated from stem cells called basal progenitors that are able to proliferate in humans, but not in mice. In humans, basal progenitors are surrounded by a special environment, a so-called extracellular matrix (ECM), which is produced by the progenitors themselves. Like a cosy bed, it accommodates the proliferating cells. Mice lack such ECM, which means that they generate fewer neurons and have a smaller brain.
The scientists therefore conducted tests to see whether in mice, basal progenitors start to proliferate if a comparable cell environment is simulated. The result: “We simulated an extracellular matrix for the brain stem cells using a stimulating antibody. This antibody activates an integrin on the cell surface of basal progenitors and thus stimulates their proliferation”, explains Denise Stenzel, who headed the experiments.
Because a requirement of thyroid hormones for proper brain development was previously known, the researchers blocked the production of these hormones in pregnant rats to see if their absence would inhibit basal progenitor proliferation in the embryos. Indeed, fewer progenitors and, consequently, neurons were produced, likely explaining the abnormal brain development in the absence of thyroid hormones. When the action of these hormones on the integrin was blocked, the ECM-simulating antibody alone was no longer able to induce basal progenitor proliferation.
A combination of ECM and thyroid hormones thus appears necessary for basal progenitors to proliferate and produce enough neurons for brain development. Human brain stem cells produce the suitable environment naturally. “That is probably how, in the course of evolution, we humans developed larger brains”, says Wieland Huttner, summing up the study. The research produced another important finding: “We were able to explain the role of iodine in embryonic brain development at the cellular level”, says Denise Stenzel. Iodine is essential for the production of thyroid hormones, and an iodine deficiency in pregnant women is known to have adverse effects on the brain development of the unborn child.Contact
Integrin αvβ3 and thyroid hormones promote expansion of progenitors in embryonic neocortex
Development (2014) doi: 10.1242/dev.101907
Prof. Dr. Wieland B. Huttner | Max-Planck-Institute
High-arctic butterflies shrink with rising temperatures
07.10.2015 | Aarhus University
Long-term contraception in a single shot
07.10.2015 | California Institute of Technology
The MICADO camera, a first light instrument for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), has entered a new phase in the project: by agreeing to a Memorandum of Understanding, the partners in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Italy, have all confirmed their participation. Following this milestone, the project's transition into its preliminary design phase was approved at a kick-off meeting held in Vienna. Two weeks earlier, on September 18, the consortium and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which is building the telescope, have signed the corresponding collaboration agreement.
As the first dedicated camera for the E-ELT, MICADO will equip the giant telescope with a capability for diffraction-limited imaging at near-infrared...
Self-driving cars will be on our streets in the foreseeable future. In Graz, research is currently dedicated to an innovative driver assistance system that takes over control if there is a danger of collision. It was nature that inspired Dr Manfred Hartbauer from the Institute of Zoology at the University of Graz: in dangerous traffic situations, migratory locusts react around ten times faster than humans. Working together with an interdisciplinary team, Hartbauer is investigating an affordable collision detector that is equipped with artificial locust eyes and can recognise potential crashes in time, during both day and night.
Inspired by insects
An interdisciplinary team of researchers has built the first prototype of a miniature particle accelerator that uses terahertz radiation instead of radio...
At present, tiny magnetic whirls – so called skyrmions – are discussed as promising candidates for bits in future robust and compact data storage devices. At...
In cooperation with the Center for Nano-Optics of Georgia State University in Atlanta (USA), scientists of the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität have made simulations of the processes that happen when a layer of carbon atoms is irradiated with strong laser light.
Electrons hit by strong laser pulses change their location on ultrashort timescales, i.e. within a couple of attoseconds (1 as = 10 to the minus 18 sec). In...
01.10.2015 | Event News
30.09.2015 | Event News
17.09.2015 | Event News
08.10.2015 | Earth Sciences
08.10.2015 | Information Technology
08.10.2015 | Physics and Astronomy