Young Leopard gecko in front of a white background © Getty Images

Geckos that can regenerate damaged parts of their brains could help heal humans

The finding could lead to treatments for replacing human brain cells that have been lost or damaged due to injury, ageing or disease.

Leopard geckos are well known for being able to shed their tail when threatened by predators, only to grow it back again. But now researchers at the University of Guelph, Canada have found that they may also be able to regenerate parts of their brains. The finding could lead to treatments for replacing human brain cells that have been lost or damaged due to injury, ageing or disease, the researchers say.

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The team discovered that stem cells frequently produce new brain cells in the medial cortex of the geckos, a part of the brain that is responsible for social cognition and behaviour. This part of the lizard’s brain has a well-studied counterpart in the human brain – the hippocampus.

“The brain is a complex organ and there are so few good treatments for brain injury, so this is a very exciting area of research,” said Prof Matthew Vickaryous, who took part in the research. “The findings indicate that gecko brains are constantly renewing brain cells, something humans are notoriously bad at doing.”
To make the discovery, the team injected the lizards with a chemical label that latched onto the DNA of newly formed cells, allowing them to see where they first arose, how they moved, and what type of cell they ultimately became.

“The next step in this area of research is to determine why some species, like geckos, can replace brain cells, while other species, like humans, cannot,” said lead researcher Rebecca McDonald, a student of veterinary medicine who specialises in healing. “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. This is definitely an area of research that has potential to change the way we treat brain injuries.”

This is an extract from issue 326 of BBC Focus magazine.

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