Mice Given Human Brain Cells Become Smarter

By Lisa Raffensperger | March 7, 2013 11:35 am

It sounds like something straight out of science fiction, but it’s true—human brain cells transplanted into mice’s brains make the mice smarter. The results highlight how important a certain overlooked class of brain cells are in human brains.

The cells in question are called glial cells. Their name comes from the Greek word for “glue,” which was long thought to be the main purpose of these cells in the human nervous system—to hold together the neurons. Scientists now think these sideline cells communicate with neurons too, but they still take a back seat in most studies of brain function.

But there’s evidence that glia are pretty crucial in human cognition. Genetic studies have shown that the biggest difference in gene expression between human and mouse brains are in glial cells. And humans have many more of a certain kind of glia, called astrocytes, than do non-primate mammals. Thus glia, rather than neurons, may be at the heart of why human brains are so distinctively powerful.

To see just how powerful they are, scientists recently transplanted some human glial cells, taken from an aborted fetus, into the brains of newborn mice. The mice developed with human-mouse hybrid brains—the human cells maintained their human size and shape, and made connections with the mouse’s own brain cells. The presence of human cells made the mice’s brains function better—the nerve connections became more efficient in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for navigation and memory.

Most remarkably, these changes translated to visible behavioral differences in the mice. Humanized mice learned significantly faster than normal mice, on tasks such as fear conditioning and navigating a maze. They also had better memory. When the mice were trained to memorize and later pick out an object, the humanized mice excelled over normal mice, according to the study published in Cell Stem Cell.

And though the results sound like sci-fi, the authors say they have real-life therapeutic promise. To better understand brain disorders such as schizophrenia and Huntington’s disease, glial cells from people with these diseases are now being implanted into mice. The results will shed light on the role of glia in these disorders, as well as allow testing of different treatment strategies that target abnormal glial function.

Image courtesy sextoacto / Shutterstock


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=704277325 Luis García Pimentel Ruiz

    Nice article and interesting investigation, but the ethics of using aborted babies brain cells on a mouse brain are very troublesome to me. I bet the investigators can work ways to obtain said glial cells from another more humane (no pun intended) source. I am always all for science but respect for humanity must have a higher place to make the resulting knowledge worthwhile.

    • http://www.facebook.com/helen.morgenstern Helen Morgenstern

      Since the fetus was not aborted to obtain the glial cells and would only be discarded, I would rather see it bring some benefit to humanity through scientific research.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=704277325 Luis García Pimentel Ruiz

        I understand your view, I think it is opportunistic at best to claim the discarded baby’s cells to inject a mouse for the sole sake of knowledge. Anyway, its a difficult issue but I thought it was important to raise it.

        • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

          ah, living right up to the stereotype, Mr. Ruiz. glad you came here so you could attempt to hold us back from doing amazing things because of some stupid beliefs you have. what a worthless citizen

          • Tristan H.

            While I support this science wholeheartedly and differ from Mr. Ruiz; I think your response (especially your now edited if not deleted original) is nothing but worthless inflammatory posturing. If you’re not going to contribute intelligently to a discussion because someone disagrees with you, then don’t bother — no one else cares.

          • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

            k, thx dad

          • Tristan H.

            You’re welcome, son. Now, go clean your room.

          • lol

            you are so fucking annoying.

          • Tristan H.

            Just because you’re not smart enough to participate doesn’t mean you don’t get an award! Have a gold star.

    • ResistJerks

      It’s a fetus, not a baby. Please don’t mix the two. A baby is born, while a fetus is attached to another human’s body in a parasitic relationship, whether you like it or not.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lori-Marino/583295737 Lori Marino

        By fetus they actually mean just a few cells. There is no nervous system and no identity. Given the fact that mice have fairly complex brains and can do things like remember, take care of their offspring, and problem solve, it is really illogical to leave them out of these kinds of concerns.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lori-Marino/583295737 Lori Marino

    Interesting how there is absolutely no discussion of the humaness of this study as it relates to these “humanized” mice.What about the experience of the mouse subjects, who are already thinking beings and are then given enhanced cognitive abilities? They are made smarter but do they suffer more? And where do we draw the line? How many human brain cells does a mouse need to have to be considered for humane treatment? So many are concerned with taking cells from something that clearly has no consciousness at the time and yet unconcerned about the implications for creating a conscious being. We need to think about these issues from ALL sides – not just faith-based – whether this is “great science” or not.

    • Joe L.

      Yeah because mice clearly are not conscious….. What makes you think that? You really don’t think there is something in there experiencing a mouse? What about us makes us conscious? Its not how we think or how smart we are. Consciousness is the act of experiencing. The universe has no idea weather its experiencing what it is to be a mouse or a human. Consciousness is universal and has no edges, it is the very fabric of time and space. So don’t assume anything is without a conscious until you can remember the last time you were a mouse. And if you were to remember, you’d realize just how insignificant being a human is when you’re a universal consciousness. Don’t separate yourself from everything just because you’re a human. You are no different than the mouse, it just feels a little different to be you because you have a cerebral cortex.

  • Rose

    So instead of never being born, this fetus wakes up being part of a mouse. Do we know where in the brain consciousness is? Would this aborted human be experiencing this?

    • Axlin

    • Tyler

      The pineal gland is the seat of the spirit, and along with the efforts of the psyche, the intellect, and the mind give rise to a working material consciousness. So if a fetus is aborted early enough before developing their pineal gland, then the spirit will never become housed in that body and will instead wait in the Beyond for another embryo on Earth to reach the appropriate gestation period.

      Furthermore, there is no danger of the aborted fetus “waking up” of the mouse’s body. If the fetus obtains a spirit before it is aborted, then it equates to murder of the fetus, meaning that the spirit will simply return to the Beyond again until it can be reincarnated. Meanwhile, if the fetus does not develop a pineal gland before it is aborted, then the spirit will never have joined with the fetus, so that there will never have existed a working material consciousness in the first place.


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