In lab experiments, the team discovered that in mice missing the sugar containing 'lipid ganglioside GD3', neural stem cells have a dramatically impaired ability to self-renew.

"If GD3 is missing, we found these neural stem cells cannot be maintained throughout life. They are reduced by a big percentage even in a one-month-old mouse," said Jing Wang, postdoctoral fellow at the Medical College of Georgia from the Georgia Regents University in US.

"In fact, by one month of life, there was about a 60 percent reduction in the supply and by six months, which is considered aged in a mouse, there were only a handful of neural stem cells remaining," Wang added.

Neural stem cells help the brain develop initially, then re-populate brain cells lost to usual cell death as well as to trauma, head injury or stroke.

GD3 plays an important role in growth factor signaling which, in turn, tells neural stem cells to proliferate or die.

Wang and colleague Robert K Yu are optimistic that one day, manipulating levels of growth factors and sugar-containing lipids would enable a more steadfast supply of neural stem cells throughout life.

The study appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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