Learning disabilities and neural defects which result in behavior problems have been notoriously difficult to treat, since the substance that causes the abnormalities, such as heroin, or organophosphates used in pesticides, seem to act diffusely in the brain, resulting in multiple defects.
But could stem cells help with autism and other learning disabilities?
Recent research from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Science Daily, “Brain Birth Defects Successfully Reversed Through Stem Cell Therapy”, December 30, 2008) suggests that such stem cell therapy could help with many learning disorders.
Dr. Joseph Yanai and associates from the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School as well as Dr. Ted Slotkin of Duke University from Duke University have been researching the possibilities. In their experiment, pregnant mice were exposed to an organophosphate pesticide and heroin in order to induce learning deficits in their offspring. They then transplanted embryonic neural stem cells into the mice with chemically-induced brain damage.
The recovery of the mice was nearly one hundred percent, and on the molecular level, the “brain chemistry of the treated animals was also restored to normal.” The experiment also answered a long-standing puzzle about how stem cells may work in the body, and specifically, the brain. It’s been known that most stem cells die out in the body, but the researchers were able to show that before they died, they induced the host brain to produce a large quantity of its own stem cells, which subsequently fixed the damage. This discovery was published earlier this year in Molecular Psychiatry, one of the leading journals in the field.
The scientists are also researching the least invasive method of delivering these neural stem cells (probably via blood vessels), as well as ways to take stem cells from the patients’ own body, and manipulating them to return to the stem cell phase of development. This will eliminate the possibility of immunological rejection by the body.
It’s no secret to readers of Age of Autism that adult stem cells are one of the therapies I’ve tried for my daughter in the past few months. There has been little medical research in this area, but there are some exceptionally compelling stories of individual recovery. I have seen encouraging signs of progress in my daughter and hope that they continue.
Whether it's from stem cells, or one of the other therapies I’ve tried, a surprising recent finding is that after years of treatment and testing, my daughter is finally starting to excrete large amounts of mercury. Rats have learning problems if they’re exposed to pesticides or heroin. My daughter starts to excrete mercury, and all of her therapists talk about how she’s more ready to learn. A coincidence? I think not.
As we head into 2009 I feel hopeful that many separate lines of inquiry can combine in unforeseen ways which will enable us to make rapid advances in treatment for our children. It’s the kind of change we can all believe in.