Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSCs) are a bone marrow-derived population present in adult tissues that possess the important property of dividing when called upon and of differentiating into specialized cells. The evidence that MSCs were able to transdifferentiate into specialized cells of tissues different from bone marrow, in particular into nervous cells, opened up the possibility of using MSCs to substitute damaged neurons that are normally not replaced but lost, in order to repair the Nervous System.
The first neuronal differentiation protocols were based on the use of a mixture of toxic drugs which induced MSCs to rapidly acquire a neuronal-like morphology with the expression of specific neuronal markers. However, many subsequent studies demonstrated that the morphological and molecular modifications of MSCs were probably due to a stress response, rather than to a real differentiation into neuronal cells, thus throwing into question the possible use of MSCs to repair the nervous system. Currently, some papers are suggesting again that it may be possible to induce neuronal differentiation of MSCs by using several differentiation protocols, and by accompanying the morphological evidence of differentiation with functional evidence, thus demonstrating that MSC-derived cells not only seem to be neurons, but that they also function like neurons. In this review, we have attempted to shed light on the capacity of MSCs to genuinely differentiate into nervous cells, and to identify the most reliable protocols for obtaining neurons from MSCs for nervous system repair.