Our brains contain billions of neurons – highly specialised, communicative cells – that are formed throughout life from less specialised precursors. A complex cocktail of signals drives this transition, and deciphering the recipe is no mean feat. Now researchers have identified one ingredient, a protein called activin, that appears key. In the lab, this dishful of precursor cells (stained red with blue nuclei) has been treated with activin, and after several days most have turned into mature neurons (stained green with blue nuclei). Modelling the developing brain in a dish highlights how different ‘ingredients’ can coax precursors to become different cell types. This will help scientists select the most suitable precursor cells for use in the regenerative medicine of the future – where cells grafted into a damaged brain could help repair or replace failing neurons.
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