By injecting stem cells directly into the brain, scientists have successfully reversed neural birth defects in mice whose mothers were given heroin during pregnancy. Even though most of the transplanted cells did not survive, they induced the brain’s own cells to carry out extensive repairs.
Transplanted stem cells have previously shown promise in reversing brain damage caused by strokes, as well as by neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s. But their use in treating birth defects is relatively new. In recent years, a handful of research teams have been developing stem-cell-based therapies for rodents with real or simulated birth defects in the brain.
Joseph Yanai, director of the Ross Laboratory for Studies in Neural Birth Defects at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, in Jerusalem, says that stem-cell therapies are ideal for treating birth defects where the mechanism of damage is multifaceted and poorly understood. “If you use neural stem cells,” says Yanai, “they are your little doctors. They’re looking for the defect, they’re diagnosing it, and they’re differentiating into what’s needed to repair the defect. They are doing my job, in a way.”