Neural progenitor cells are specialized cells with the capability to develop into neurons in the process known as neurogenesis. They are similar to stem cells, but have a more specific function. These specialized cells can be identified in medical imaging studies of the brain and nervous system and are a topic of interest for researchers who want to learn more about brain development and recovery from brain injuries. This can also be important for the study of congenital nervous system disorders, some of which are related to issues with neural progenitor cells.
The differentiation between neural progenitor cells and stem cells is a complex topic. The body contains a number of stem cells capable of developing into a variety of different cell types. As they mature, their ability to differentiate by turning into different kinds of cells narrows. Neural progenitor cells could be considered a special type of stem cells, capable of maturing into various neural tissues, or a different, but related, cell type, depending on the text and the researcher.
Unlike stem cells, neural progenitor cells do not have an unlimited capacity for reproduction. They tend to arise early in fetal development, laying the groundwork for the brain and central nervous system. Errors in fetal development caused by environmental issues or congenital disorders can cause disorders with neural progenitor cells. The cells may not fully develop, or the nervous system may be incomplete or damaged.
Research indicates that some neural progenitor cells make it through to adulthood and can continue to differentiate into new brain cells. This is an important realization for neurological research, as it indicates some capacity to recover from certain types of brain injuries. These cells can also create problems in the brain, as they are capable of uncontrolled division and the development of a cancerous growth. With limited room to expand and very sensitive surrounding tissues in the brain, such growths can quickly become a serious medical issue.
Researchers culture lines of neural progenitor cells in laboratory environments. They also study the development of such cells in a variety of animals to learn more about the human brain and nervous system maturation. The ability to grow cells in culture provides important research opportunities, as it allows scientists to explore what happens under different conditions, and how cells go rogue and turn into cancerous tumors. People with an interest in this kind of work typically need advanced degrees in topics like molecular and cell biology.