For example, it is suspected that antidepressants work by boosting the creation of new brain cells. With that in mind, Maletic-Savatic's team will use MRS to "clarify whether abnormalities in these progenitors have any role in causing depression," she said.
And, because she is primarily a pediatric neurologist, Maletic-Savatic said she is also planning a study looking at the cells' role in early brain development, "particularly in premature babies who can develop cerebral palsy and mental retardation."
Finally, multiple sclerosis patients may also benefit from MRS-guided research into neural stem cells.
"We are now doing a study that already started a year ago on patients with MS, and we plan to prospectively follow them and see whether we can use this biomarker as a prognostic tool," Maletic-Savatic said.
Research into a wide variety of brain disorders could also benefit from this type of stem cell research she added. Tracking stem cells in the brain has obvious implications for research into stem cell transplantation, but Maletic-Savatic said breakthroughs in that area are probably years away.
"On the other hand, if we find drugs or ways that can stimulate your own endogenous cells, that would be even better," she said.
Sanberg agreed that the ability of researchers to track neural stem cells is a boon to brain research.
"To be able to show that you are increasing neurogenesis in the brain through your treatment -- through drugs that induce neurogenesis -- that's going to be very important," he said. "This is a really strong first step."
Find out more on stem cells at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
SOURCES: Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, M.D., Ph.D
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