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Scientists grow brain cells in a dish

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(CNN) -- American scientists have discovered a way of creating new brain cells in a dish -- a breakthrough that could lead to treatments for conditions such as Parkinson's disease and epilepsy.

The team, based at the University of Florida's McKnight Brain Insititute, said they were able to identify master cells in the brains of mice and grow them in large batches.

If the discovery also applied to humans, it could be possible to generate enough of a patient's own stem cells to restore damaged brain function. Since the recipient of a transplant would also be the donor, the procedure could also be carried out without the need for immune system suppressing drugs.

"It's like an assembly line to manufacture and increase the number of brain cells," said neuroscientist Bjorn Scheffler, who led the study.

"We can basically take these cells and freeze them until we need them. Then we thaw them, begin a cell-generating process, and produce a ton of new neurons."

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, also marks a major advance in stem cell research. Although stem cells that form the building blocks of skin, bone, flesh and organs have been identified, the actual stem cell in the brain had proved difficult to identify.

"We've isolated for the first time what appears to be the true candidate stem cell," said McKnight executive director Dennis Steindler.

"We've actually witnessed the stem cell give rise to new neurons. Possibly a new method may come up to identify the mother of all stem cells, but we're confident this is it."

The brain continues to produce a small number of brain cells in adulthood, with stem cells developing into fully-fledged cells in a process similar to the natural production of blood cells.

The new method of neurogenesis is able to generate far greater amounts of cells than the body can on its own.

"As far as regenerating parts of the brain that have degenerated, such as in Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease and others of that nature, the ability to regenerate the needed cell type and placing it in the correct spot would have major impact," said neurosurgeon Eric Holland of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Holland said the technique could also enhance understanding of how brain tumors occur, since stem cells and and cancer cells share many of the same characteristics: "Knowing what makes these cells tick may help by furthering our knowledge of the biology of the tumor."

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