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Mouse brain cells live long and prosper

Neurons have double the life span when transplanted into rat brain

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Mouse brain cells scamper close to eternal life: They can actually outlive their bodies. Mouse neurons transplanted into rat brains lived as long as the rats did, surviving twice as long as the mouse’s average life span, researchers report online February 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings suggest that long lives might not mean deteriorating brains. “This could absolutely be true in other mammals — humans too,” says study author Lorenzo Magrassi, a neurosurgeon at the University of Pavia in Italy.

The findings are “very promising,” says Carmela Abraham, a neuroscientist at Boston University. “The question is: Can neurons live longer if we prolong our life span?” Magrassi’s experiment, she says, suggests the answer is yes.

One theory about aging, Magrassi says, is that every species has a genetically determined life span and that all the cells in the body wear out and die at roughly the same time. For the neurons his team studied, he says, “We have shown that this simple idea is certainly not true.”

Magrassi’s team surgically transplanted neurons from embryonic mice with an average life span of 18 months into rats. To do so, the researchers slipped a glass microneedle through the abdomens of anesthetized pregnant mice. Then, using a dissecting microscope and a tool to illuminate the corn-kernel-sized mouse embryos, the researchers scraped out tiny bits of brain tissue and injected the neurons into fetal rat brains. After the rat pups were born, Magrassi and colleagues waited as long as three years, until the animals were near death, to euthanize the rats and dissect their brains.

The transplanted mouse cells had linked up with the rat brain cells and developed into mature, working neurons, though they did retain their characteristic small size. Also, because Magrassi’s team had tagged the mouse cells to glow green, the researchers could distinguish between mouse and rat neurons. The mouse cells lived twice as long as they would have in a mouse brain, and they showed signs of aging similar to those of neighboring rat neurons.

Figuring out what’s helping the neurons survive could lead researchers to treatments for human neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, Magrassi says.

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