I am frequently surprised by how often people misuse the terms “neural” and “neuronal” when speaking about stem cells. Admittedly, the differences are subtle, but they are extremely important. In an effort to clarify terminology, this article explains and defines a range of neural stem cell (NSC) terms.
Neural Stem Cells, A Brief Background
In 1992, Reynolds and Weiss were the first to isolate neural stem cells from the striatal tissue of adult mice brain tissue, including the subventricular zone, which is a neurogenic area. Since then, neural progenitor and stem cells have been isolated from various areas of the adult central nervous system, including non-neurogenic areas like the spinal cord, and from other species, including humans.
During the development of the nervous system, neural progenitor cells can either stay in the pool of proliferating undifferentiated cells or exit the cell cycle and differentiate.
Over the past few years, neuronal stem and progenitor cells have become of profound interest to the research community due to their potential to be used in drug discovery and delivery applications, as well as for tools of neural toxicology assessment.
NSC transplantation also represents a ground-breaking approach for the treatment of a range of chronic neurological diseases and acute central nervous system injuries, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and spinal cord injury, among other conditions.
Neural Stem Cell Terminology
During the development of the nervous system, neural progenitor cells can either stay in the pool of proliferating undifferentiated cells or exit the cell cycle and differentiate.1 A limited number of new neurons are also generated during adulthood.
First, there is utility in clarifying difference between neural stem and neural progenitor cells:
- Neural stem cells (NSCs) are the self-renewing, multipotent cells that differentiate into the main phenotypes of the nervous system. These cell types include neurons, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes.
- Neural progenitor cells (NPCs) are the progeny of stem cell division that normally undergo a limited number of replication cycles in vivo.
The distinction between neural and neuronal is also very interesting, because the terms are used somewhat interchangeably among the scientific community, even though one is more specific and the other is broader in nature.
Below, we clarify the difference between the terms neural and neuronal:
- Neural means “pertaining to a nerve or nerves, which are the cord-like bundles of fibers made up of neurons.”2 This is a broader term, because it pertains to any structure of the nervous system, including neurons, glia, and more.
- Neuronal means “pertaining to neurons, which are the conducting cells of the nervous system.”3 This is a more specific and defined term, because it only pertains to neurons.
Since both terms are ultimately descriptive of neurons, it is unsurprising that the scientific community sometimes uses the terms “neural” and “neuronal” to refer to the same population of stem cells characterized by the functional potential to differentiate into neurons, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes.
However, the technical difference between the terms is absolutely essential to understand, especially when introducing new products to the marketplace.
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1 Lobjois, et al. “Forcing neural progenitor cells to cycle is insufficient to alter cell-fate decision and timing of neuronal differentiation in the spinal cord.” Neural Develop. 2008 Feb 13;3:4.
2 Biology Online, Dictionary. Available at: http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Neural. Accessed Jan 13, 2016.
3 Biology Online, Dictionary. Available at: http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Neuronal. Accessed Jan 13, 2016.