It seems the science of stem cells has a permanent spot on the media radar, as certain types of stem cells have the ability to develop into any cell in the body. A recent discovery at the Yale School of Medicine brings science one step closer to unlocking the therapeutic potential of these precursors.

Angelique Bordey, a neurosurgery and cellular physiology professor, recently linked the neurotransmitter GABA and stem cell expansion in the brain. The research, published in this month’s Nature Neuroscience, shows that cells that develop into neurons release GABA, which limits the proliferation of neural stem cells. Alternately, Bordey found that the absence of this chemical promotes neural growth.

This discovery could be applicable to the treatment of brain cancer because GABA regulates brain tumors, which are nothing more than uncontrolled growth of neural stem cells. But Bordey said her findings do not directly point to a cure.

“Anything expressed in a stem cell or in the brain cannot be made into a drug,” she said.

In addition to its relevance in oncology, interfering with the release of GABA could stimulate growth of new brain cells, Bordey said. This could help repair brain damage caused by illness or injury, such as a stroke.

A stroke occurs when a blood clot lodges in the brain, and the brain tissue cut off from a blood supply begins to die.

“There are two windows of opportunity in treating stroke victims,” said Dr. Nancy Futrell, a neurologist and stroke specialist in Salt Lake City, Utah. “The first is prevention, and the second is repair.”

Futrell said she is excited about Bordey’s work because the repair stage, which would be enabled by cell growth caused by the absence of GABA, needs to be explored further.

Though the research has a long way to go, scientists believe that stem cells could eventually be engineered into replacements for cells that have been damaged or are missing as a result of disease, said Erin Lavik, a biomedical engineering professor who works with stem cells.

Another implication of Bordey’s research is particularly applicable to college students.

“Sleeping pills basically enhance the neurotransmitter GABA, and they prevent neurogenesis. Alcohol has much the same effect,” Bordey said.

Bordey’s research suggests abuse of sleeping pills or alcohol, not uncommon on college campuses, could inhibit brain growth. The next step in her research is testing human tissue from alcoholic and normal patients to determine if there is a difference in brain growth, Bordey said.