Leopard geckos can grow new brain cells, study finds

Chemical tags helped scientists track stem cells to the medial cortex inside the brains of leopard geckos. There, they found evidence of brain cell regeneration. Photo by Rebecca McDonald/University of Guelph

July 30 (UPI) — Many reptiles and amphibians boast impressive tissue regeneration abilities. But only geckos are known to be able to grow new neurons.

For the first time, researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, have identified the presence of stem cells responsible for neuron generation in the brains of leopard geckos.

Scientists used a chemical tag that was incorporated into the DNA of stem cells that allowed them to track where stem cells traveled and what types of cells they became.

Scientists were able to follow the tags to the lizard’s medial cortex — an oft-studied analog to the human brain’s hippocampus — where they witnessed the generation of new brain cells.

“The findings indicate that gecko brains are constantly renewing brain cells, something that humans are notoriously bad at doing,” Matthew Vickaryous, professor at the Ontario Veterinary College, said in a news release.

Vickaryous and his research partners published their findings this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Most regeneration research has looked at zebrafish or salamanders,” said lead study author Rebecca McDonald, a master’s student at the University of Guelph. “Our work uses lizards, which are more closely related to mammals than either fish or amphibians.”

Next, scientists hope to figure out why these stem cells are capable of generating new neurons inside the gecko’s brain but not in the human brain. The research could eventually lead to new treatments to help the human brain recover from injuries or degenerative diseases.

“Recently, there’s been a lot of new information coming out about the brain’s ability to produce new cells, something that was long thought to be impossible,” McDonald said. “This is definitely an area of research that has the potential to change the way we treat brain injuries.”


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