Over the last decade, neural transplantation has emerged as one of the more promising, albeit highly experimental, potential therapeutics in neurodegenerative disease. Preclinical studies in rat lesion models of Huntington’s disease (HD) and Parkinson’s disease (PD) have shown that transplanted precursor neuronal tissue from a fetus into the lesioned striatum can survive, integrate, and reconnect circuitry. Importantly, specific training on behavioral tasks that target striatal function is required to encourage functional integration of the graft to the host tissue. Indeed, “learning to use the graft” is a concept recently adopted in preclinical studies to account for unpredicted profiles of recovery posttransplantation and is an emerging strategy for improving graft functionality.
Clinical transplant studies in HD and PD have resulted in mixed outcomes. Small sample sizes and nonstandardized experimental procedures from trial to trial may explain some of this variability. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that simply replacing the lost neurons may not be sufficient to ensure the optimal graft effects. The knowledge gained from preclinical grafting and training studies suggests that lifestyle factors, including physical activity and specific cognitive and/or motor training, may be required to drive the functional integration of grafted cells and to facilitate the development of compensatory neural networks. The clear implications of preclinical studies are that physical activity and cognitive training strategies are likely to be crucial components of clinical cell replacement therapies in the future.
In this chapter, we evaluate the role of general activity in mediating the physical ability of cells to survive, sprout, and extend processes following transplantation in the adult mammalian brain, and we consider the impact of general and specific activity at the behavioral level on functional integration at the cellular and physiological level. We then highlight specific research questions related to timing, intensity, and specificity of training in preclinical models and synthesize the current state of knowledge in clinical populations to inform the development of a strategy for neural transplantation rehabilitation training.