Mental health is a key component for a happy life. Our abilities to perceive the world, use logic and reasoning, make decision, and understand concepts are vital parts of what makes us human. The brain and neurological functioning affect every system of the body, and enable our complex, sensitive instruments to behave as they do. These crucial faculties can be taken from us, either by injuries to the brain or through the decline of aging. But emerging treatments using stem cells may be able to preserve or restore brain and neurological function, and even repair damaged brain tissue.

Saving the Brain

Traumatic brain injury can occur in a number of ways. It usually results in severe chronic inflammation and neurological impairment. There is little that can be done with conventional pharmaceutical treatments to mitigate these effects. Patients typically require surgery to repair or remove damaged blood vessels or brain tissue.

But in vitro research on brain cultures and mice specimens has shown that stem cell therapy reduces brain inflammation and promotes cognitive improvement. Stem cell treatments also show promising potential for being able to help heal spinal cord injuries.

As of the publication of this article, a new study is beginning in Britain to determine the efficacy of using stem cell therapies for stroke victims. Usually when people suffer from a stroke, they experience severe impairment because of the damage to the electrical circuits of the brain. The theory behind this study is that stem cells could inspire the generation of new brain cells that would reroute those electrical circuits to bypass the damaged areas of the brain.

How Stem Cells Can Help the Brain Heal

Instead of replacing dead or dying brain cells as was once thought, researchers now believe that transplanted neural stem cells secrete stem cell growth factors. These growth factors rescue the injured tissues by building a type of biobridge, linking the damaged regions of the brain with the uninjured areas of the brain where new neural stem cells are naturally formed. Then the damaged parts of the brain are repaired by the brain itself, not the implanted cells.

The growth factors inspire the brain to generate more neural stem cells of its own. The implanted cells also tend to transport the newly generated neural cells to the injured areas of the brain. All of these factors promote functional recovery from the brain injury.

This research could result in ground-breaking treatments for victims of stroke and other traumatic brain injury, restoring a level of functioning and life quality that is nearly fantastical to imagine with conventional treatments.

Teaching an Old Brain New Tricks

While it is positive that stem cell therapy may soon be used to treat humans with traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, most people do not lose cognitive function through injuries. The majority of mental degeneration occurs because of neurological disorders such as Alzheimers disease.

The conventional treatments for these disorders primarily treat the symptoms, attempting to make the patients as comfortable as possible as they lose their mental faculties. But stem cell therapy studies on brain cultures and in mice studies has indicated that neurogenesis (regeneration of brain tissue) is possible. This means neurological disorders can be actually cured, not just endured.

Neurogenesis improves emotional behavior and cognitive performance, especially learning and memory. As we age we naturally produce fewer neural stem cells, which means less naturally occurring neurogenesis. It has been shown that stem cell therapy increases neurogenesis, thereby improving brain function.

Brains in laboratory studies have proven capable of allowing human neurological stem cells to retain their pluripotency the ability to produce the necessary cells. This means that neuroreplacement therapies for neurodegenerative diseases in living humans are a very real possibility.

In addition to traumatic brain injury and Alzheimers, stem cell therapy protocols are being researched to treat ischemic strokes, Multiple Sclerosis, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), optic neuritis, peripheral nerve injury, Huntingtons disease, cerebral palsy, and other brain and nervous system disorders.

This is still a brand new type of medicine, and nothing is certain yet. Clinical stem cell trials on humans with neurological disorders are only just beginning. Each type of injury or disorder requires a very specific type of stem cell, so there may never be universally applicable treatments.

But new discoveries are happening all the time, and scientists are exploring how to use stem cells to repair the brain even as you read this. Hopefully by the time we start to lose our cognitive functioning, this type of medicine will have advanced enough that we will be able to regenerate our own brains, and maintain our cognitive functioning for the rest of our lives.