Latent stem cells could repair spinal cord damage

A group of latent stem cells could be the key to developing new therapeutic approaches to treat brain and spinal cord injuries, research shows.

Scientists at the Francis Crick Institute identified a group of latent stem cells in mice which respond to injury in the central nervous system. If the same group is found in humans, the researchers believe it could lead to new therapeutic approaches to treat injuries of the brain and spinal cord.

For the study1, the researchers identified a group of latent stem cells in the central nervous system of mice. These are part of the ependymal cells that line the walls of compartments in the brain and spinal cord that hold cerebrospinal fluid.

The team identified the cells by chance after using a fluorescence tool to look for immune cells called dendritic cells in the brain. The ependymal cells were found to arise from embryonic progenitor cells that shared a same protein as dendritic cells on their surface, which revealed them to the scientists.

In healthy mice, the team found that these cells stay still and waft small hairs on their surface to help the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. In injured mouse spinal cords however, the cells responded by dividing and migrating towards the damaged area, then differentiating into astrocytes, one of the major cell types of the nervous system.

The researchers state that these cells could help the body produce new neurons, which are responsible for receiving and sending key signals for movement, after spinal injury.

Official comments

Bruno Frederico, co-corresponding author and postdoctoral training fellow in the Immunobiology laboratory at the Crick said: “While we don’t know if these cells exist in humans, if they do, it would be interesting to see if they also default to becoming astrocytes rather than neurons in response to damage. This might help explain why the mammalian central nervous system does not have a strong ability to repair itself after injury.

“If we could find a way to overcome the barriers that are stopping the differentiation into neurons and oligodendrocytes after spinal cord injury, it could present a new avenue of therapies to treat spinal cord injuries.”

Caetano Reis e Sousa, co-corresponding author and principal group leader at the Crick, added: “There was uncertainty over whether ependymal cells can have neural stem cell capabilities, but this study underscores their potential.

“We hope that studying these cells will help build a more complete picture of the role different types of stem cells play in repairing damage, which could have important implications for regenerative medicine.”


1: Frederico, B. et al. (2022). DNGR-1-tracing marks an ependymal cell subset with damage-responsive neural stem cell potential. Developmental Cell10.1016/j.devcel.2022.07.012

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