Scientists in the US have figured out how to increase the production of neurons by manipulating a newly discovered type of RNA molecule called Pnky.

Found only in the brain, Pnky is one of the few types of 'non-coding' RNA molecules (lncRNAs) we currently know about, which means it doesn't code for proteins like other RNA molecules. And now it appears Pnky plays a role in neuron production, judging from the experiments performed by neurosurgeon Daniel A. Lim and his team at UC San Francisco.

They were studying the molecules in the neural stem cells of mouse and human brains, and found that when they removed them, neuron production increased by three to four times the normal rate. Why is this exciting? Well, neurons - or nerve cells - play a crucial role in how our brains transmit and process information in the form of electrical nerve impulses. The point of contact between one neuron and another is known as a synapse.

"It is remarkable that when you take Pnky away, the stem cells produce many more neurons," said Lim in a press release. "These findings suggest that Pnky, and perhaps lncRNAs in general, could eventually have important applications in regenerative medicine and cancer treatment."

Interestingly, not only could figuring out how to manipulate Pnky in the brain achieve better neuron production, but its function could be linked to the development of brain tumours, Lim says. The team found that Pnky binds with a protein called PTBP1, which is known to accumulate in brain tumours and promote their continued growth. This dastardly pair seem to work together to suppress the production of neurons in the brain too. 

"Take away one or the other, and the stem cells differentiate, making more neurons," said Lim. "It is also possible that Pnky can regulate brain tumour growth, which means we may have identified a target for the treatment of brain tumours."

The team published the results in the journal Cell Stem Cell.