Fractones: extracellular matrix niche controlling stem cell fate and growth factor activity in the brain in health and disease


The stem cell niche refers to a specific microenvironment where stem cells proliferate and differentiate to produce new specialized cells throughout an organism’s adulthood. Growth factors are crucial signaling molecules that diffuse through the extracellular space, reach the stem cell niche, and ultimately promote stem cell proliferation and differentiation. However, it is not well known how multiple growth factors, often with antagonistic activities, work together in the stem cell niche to select target stem cell populations and determine stem cell fate. There is accumulating evidence suggesting that extracellular matrix (ECM) molecules play an important role in promoting growth factor access and activity in the stem cell niche. In the adult brain neurogenic zone, where neural stem cells (NSCs) reside, there exist specialized ECM structures, which we have named fractones. The processes of NSC allow them to come into contact with fractones and interact with its individual components, which include heparan sulfate proteoglycans (HSPGs) and laminins. We have demonstrated that fractone-associated HSPGs bind growth factors and regulate NSC proliferation in the neurogenic zone. Moreover, emerging results show that fractones are structurally altered in animal models with autism and adult hydrocephalus, as demonstrated by changes in fractone size, quantity, or HSPG content. Interestingly, ECM structures similar to fractones have been found throughout β-amyloid plaques in the brain of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Pathological fractones may cause imbalances in growth factor activity and impair neurogenesis, leading to inflammation and disorder. Generally speaking, these stem cell niche structures play a potentially vital role in controlling growth factor activity during both health and disease.

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I thank C Alan Titchenal, Harry B Davis and Albert HW Jiang for proofreading this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Frederic Mercier.

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Mercier, F. Fractones: extracellular matrix niche controlling stem cell fate and growth factor activity in the brain in health and disease. Cell. Mol. Life Sci. 73, 4661–4674 (2016).

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  • Adult neurogenesis
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Glycoproteins
  • Meninges
  • Neurodegenerative disorders
  • Subventricular zone