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Unlocking the Mind: How Stem Cells Could Revolutionize Mental Illness Treatment

Unlocking the Mind: How Stem Cells Could Revolutionize Mental Illness Treatment

July 25, 2023
Dr. Lana du Plessis
July 25, 2023
Dr. Lana du Plessis

Historically there has been contention in the classification of mental illnesses. Due to recent developments in genetics and neuroscience, novel associations between brain structures, functions, and symptoms of mental disorders have been uncovered. This has led to a possible reclassification of mental disorders as disorders of the brain.

Neurological illnesses like Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease can be grouped together because they all are the result of a faulty or damaged nervous system. These are usually treated by a Neurologist.

While neurological illnesses involve damage to and deterioration of the nervous system, the damage can alter the communication between neurons. This, in turn, leads to problems with behaviour, body control, memory, and mood. In other words, the same problems psychiatrists treat.

The hallmarks of psychiatric disorders, on the other hand, are disturbed behavioural and emotional states. Neuronal messaging has been associated with depression, behavioural problems, posttraumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and schizophrenia. These disorders can affect social interactions, mood, concentration, memory, and body control.

The role of stem cells in treatments

Although many of these diseases are treated with medicine and conventional therapies, the clinical use of stem cells in mental illnesses remained controversial until recently. With new technologies, adult somatic cells can be reprogrammed into cells with stem cell properties by introducing specific transcription factors, they are then called “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPSCs). These iPSCs can be further manipulated to then become any type of cell or tissue, including neurons. However, the use of stem cells from the umbilical cords of healthy newborns has allowed for broader applications of stem cell research and possible treatment because they are more naïve and pliable.

The main value of stem cells is that they influence the vascular, nutritional, functional, inflammatory, and immune environment of the brain, thereby possibly aiding in cognitive and emotional recovery. Stem cells work in two ways, i.e., through direct cell-to-cell interaction, and through the production and release of growth, immunoregulating-, and anti-inflammatory factors.

Stem cells can physically regenerate the central nervous system and hold vast benefits for the treatment of neuronal and psychiatric disorders. Stem cell transplants can help in regenerating neurons,  can assist in immune and vascular repair as well as in controlling inflammation. Many psychiatric illnesses are a manifestation of inflammatory and autoimmune mechanisms that are faulty. Therefore, given the ability of stem cells, many immune-, inflammation-, neurodegenerative- and vascular-based psychiatric disorders can be treated by using stem cell transplants. Thus, future innovations based on the use of stem cells hold great promise to extend our knowledge, diagnosis, and, possibly, treatment of these psychiatric disorders or “brain disorders”.

In the past two decades, more and more studies have been conducted on neurological and psychiatric disorders to establish the value of treatment using stem cells.


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