Stem Cells and the Aging Brain

Aging is a part and parcel of life, but as our body ages, our brains age too. Just like an aging body can be riddled with diseases and illnesses like arthritis, cataracts, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, an aging brain too can be afflicted with sickness. The age-associated diseases that affect the brain are often clustered under the umbrella-term of ‘neurodegeneration’. Diseases like Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are some of the better known disorders that fall under this terminology.

Let us first understand what the term ‘neurodegeneration’ actually encompasses. The Oxford Dictionary defines neurodegeneration as the “Degeneration of the nervous system, especially of neurons in the brain”. According to the EU Joint Programme – Neurodegenerative Disease Research (JPND), the nervous system of the human body comprises of neurons. In case they suffer damage, they do not possess the ability to repair, replace or reproduce themselves. This inability results in neurodegenerative diseases.

Previously, neurodegenerative diseases were believed to be incurable. However, with the gigantic steps towards advancement that medical science has taken in the recent years, scientists have been able to devise procedures that help in assisting individuals suffering from neurodegenerative disease. Stem cell therapy is among these advanced procedures that have recently shown positive results.

These cells are mother or master cells that have the ability to differentiate into other types of specialized cells through the process of mitosis. They can repair internal tissue damage by developing into a cell with a specialized function like a blood cell or brain cell. They also possess the ability to renew themselves.

Utilizing these type of cells to treat medical disorders and diseases is known as stem cell therapy. Transplantation of stem cells is the most common procedure used in this cell therapy. In cases of brain degeneration, stem cells are transplanted into the patient. These cells then become progenitor cells that work within the brain to maintain the neuron functions. Research has been conducted on animal models for diseases like Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis, which have provided optimistic outcomes.

In a symposium organized by EuroStemCell, Magdalena Götz, PhD, Helmholtz Zentrum München, spoke about the radial glial cells which are present in the neural stem cells and described them as “they look like glia, they smell like glia but they are actually the neural stem cells.” She further explained the development of brain cells and the possibility of guiding neural stem cells to locate and repair the injury site inside the brain, while also regenerating neurons.

Stem cell research is the future of neurology. With several clinical studies being conducted year after year, the use of the cells in this therapy in treating neurological disorders is constantly expanding. In India, the guidelines established by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) for conducting clinical studies have been revolutionised leading to extensive research being done in the field of stem cell therapy.

Changes With Aging in Multiple Sclerosis: Know More to Beat It!

Multiple sclerosis – many of us have already heard about it, many may have watched someone close suffering from it and I know, many of us are going through it. Whatever our stage is, let’s talk about the first thing first – what is Multiple sclerosis? I know, the second question that will pop into your head is – does this one reduce our life expectancy like many other diseases? Is there any cure and if not, could the symptoms be minimized so that the patient could lead a normal life? May be now you are thinking how I am choosing the right questions to ask. One of my very close acquaintances is living with it and when he was first diagnosed with it, these were the exact questions that hit me.

Getting older with multiple sclerosis: Physical Changes

Multiple sclerosis can be thought of an autoimmune disorder where the body’s immune system instead of defending ourselves, starts working against it! In this case, our own body’s immune system attacks the myelin of central nervous system which will lead to impairment in mobility, weakness, blurred vision, loss of balance and even paralysis depending on the severity of damage.

Multiple sclerosis and aging are intertwined. It’s not like that you will age before your time but the age related problems will be evident sooner in these patients. It was found that patients having multiple sclerosis are in a high risk of developing urinary tract infections, cellulitis which is a skin infection caused by bacteria and also septicemia which is also called blood poisoning disorder where the bacterial infection gets into the bloodstream, with aging. So, don’t forget to keep an eye on them.

Moreover, with aging the possibility of becoming physically disabled will highly increase. Now, the question is how to handle it? In the earlier stage, when the feeling of weakness in the leg starts, orthotics which could be worn inside shoes could give a real aid to the foot muscles from getting stiff. In spite of this, climbing stairs, walking could be troublesome with a weaker leg and don’t you worry! ‘Ankle foot brace’ could help you there! This braces work by stabilizing ankles when the foot muscles get weak so that you can walk and get up stairs with more ease.

What happens if one leg is stronger than the other? Yes! We have got solution for that one too. Take a cane on stronger side and shift the body weight to that side so that walking or moving would get easier. If the damage is significant in both legs then walkers could be a good choice as it provides support for both of your legs. If you want to have more freedom, then I think wheelchairs or power scooters could be the right option for you.

Changes in cognitive function with aging:

Apart from this physical issues, 65% of multiple sclerosis patients suffers from cognitive impairment like unable to pay attention or concentrate, gets slow in planning, information processing and last but not the least loss of memory. Obviously these symptoms would get worse with aging. Don’t think yourself helpless here. The truth is many of us couldn’t remember many important things. So, it’s best to write in notebooks or in computers, phones and let the electronics do the remembering!

Psychological changes with aging:

Now let’s get more concerned about the psychological issues. Older multiple sclerosis patients suffer from mental health problems mostly and still don’t feel to go to a psychiatrist. Ignoring depression, anxiety, stress would be a poor choice to fight this battle. Counseling, occupational therapy could bring a positive change into your life to help you go through this.

The most frightening thing about aging in multiple sclerosis patients is, a time will come when the family will start seeing the patient as a burden due to his physical and mental disability. I really found it ironic that when the patients needed us most, we want to turn them away!!

No, don’t get scared, get prepared. You need to manage things in a way so that you could do your chores easily. And don’t forget, you are the fighter here. Don’t you ever give up, go for counseling, join with people having same problems like you, take help of a nurse or physician, note down everything so that you don’t forget, use assistive devices that could help you with mobility issues. See, life is not that difficult! Be strong, be determined, you are not alone in this fight; we are all here to help you.