In Brief

Researchers have identified a new technique for detecting neural progenitor cells (NPCs)—stem cell-like cells that can develop into new neurons.

The finding, published in Science (Vol. 318, No. 5852, pages 980-985) will help researchers better understand the workings of neurogenesis, the failure or interruption of which is implicated in diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, as well as cognitive disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Researchers began by identifying in animal brains a biomarker-in this case, a specific mixture of lipids-that is only present in neuronal cells. Using a brain-imaging technique known as magnetic resonance spectrometry, the team, led by neurologist Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, MD, PhD, of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, identified this biomarker in the brains of living mice, clearly demarcating the NPCs.

"The crucial question was to see if we could see the biomarker in the live human brain," says project collaborator Grigori Enikolopov, PhD, a molecular biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

When they tested the technique in healthy humans across a range of ages, it worked perfectly, allowing researchers to identify NPCs in living humans for the first time. What's more, they found that as people got older, they exhibited less and less of the NPC biomarker, reflecting scientists' suspicions that as people age, they produce fewer and fewer new neurons.

The research team will use the technique to further explore the connection between neurogenesis and neurological diseases and cognitive disorders.

--M. Price