Neural stem cells are the precursors of neurons, astrocytes and oligodendrocytes. During neural development, the division of stem cells takes place close to the lumen of the neural tube, after which they migrate to their final positions within the central nervous system (CNS). Soluble factors, including growth factors, regulate neural stem cell proliferation, survival, migration and differentiation towards specific cell lineages.
This thesis describes the function of platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) and stem cell factor (SCF) in neural stem cell regulation. PDGF was previously suggested to stimulate neuronal differentiation, but the mechanisms were not defined. This study shows that PDGF is a mitogen and a survival factor that expands a pool of immature cells from neural stem cells. The PDGF-treated cells can be stained by neuronal markers, but need further stimuli to continue their maturation. They can become either neurons or glia depending on the secondary instructive cues. Moreover, neural stem cells produce PDGF. Inhibition of this endogenous PDGF negatively affects the cell number in stem cell cultures. We find that SCF stimulates migration and supports the survival of neural stem cells, but that it has no effect on their proliferation or differentiation into neurons and glia. Intracellular signaling downstream from the receptors for PDGF and SCF includes activation of extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK). This investigation shows that active ERK is not needed for the differentiation of stem cells into neurons, at least not during early stages.
Neural stem cells have a future potential in the treatment of CNS disorders. To be able to use neural stem cells clinically we need to understand how their proliferation, differentiation, survival and migration are controlled. The results presented in this thesis increase our knowledge of how neural stem cells are regulated by growth factors.