Press Release


Supporting Cells of the Human Brain Directly Converted into Nerve Cells

Neuherberg, October 10, 2012. Scientists of Helmholtz Zentrum München have shown that supporting cells from the adult human brain can be directly converted into functional nerve cells. The team led by Magdalena Götz and Benedikt Berninger published the study in the current issue of the prestigious journal Cell Stem Cell. The discovery of the possibility of reprogramming cells is the topic of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Supporting cells from resected tissue of the cerebral cortex of patients were isolated and converted in cell cultures into nerve cells (white-stained cell in the middle with long axons) by expression of the two transcription factors 'Mash1' and 'Sox2' (Karow et al., Cell Stem Cell 2012).

Only two transcription factors* are necessary to convert supporting cells from the adult brain of patients into functional nerve cells. This is the result of a recent study conducted by a team of researchers led by Professor Magdalena Götz, director of the Institute of Stem Cell Research at Helmholtz Zentrum München and holder of the Chair for Physiological Genomics at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, and Benedikt Berninger, now Professor at the University of Mainz.

The scientists were able to show that supporting cells of the human brain can be directly converted into nerve cells – avoiding the need to generate pluripotent stem cells. Since 2002, Götz and her team have repeatedly shown in animal model studies that supporting cells in the brain can be reprogrammed into nerve cells without the detour via stem cells (see below Nobel Prize in Medicine) and that the resultant cells behave normally, forming functional contacts and networks. Now they have proven for the first time that this is also possible for cells derived from the adult human brain.

The long-term goal of this groundbreaking research is to convert supporting cells into functional neurons in brains of patients after brain injuries. “We will now further develop the approach to activate endogenous cells in the brain towards the long-term goal of regenerate neurons from local sources of supporting cells thus avoiding the need of transplantation ” said Götz, describing the next steps of the Munich Helmholtz researchers.

That differentiated cells from all organs can be converted into early, so-called pluripotent stem cells with the aid of transcription factors was shown by the Japanese scientist Professor Shinya Yamanaka in 2006. On Monday the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm announced that he would share the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this achievement.

Further information
* Transcription factors are regulatory proteins that control which genes are active in the cell and which are inactive.

Original publication:
Karow M. et al (2012): Reprogramming of Pericyte-Derived Cells of the Adult Human Brain into Induced Neuronal Cells. Cell Stem Cell (11): 471
Link to journal
Helmholtz Zentrum München the German Research Center for Environmental Health, pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches to the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,000 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. It is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 34,000 staff members. The Helmholtz Zentrum München is a partner in the German Center for Diabetes Research. 

Scientific contact

Prof. Dr. Magdalena Götz, Helmholtz Zentrum München
German Research Center for Environmental Health
Institute of Stem Cell Research
Ingolstädter Landstr. 1
D-85764 Neuherberg
Phone +49 (0)89-3187-3750
Fax  +49 (0)89-3187-3761 -