Hypoxia and neural stem cells: from invertebrates to brain cancer stem cells

Int J Dev Biol. 2011;55(6):569-81. doi: 10.1387/ijdb.103186fm.


Oxygen is a fundamental element for all living organisms, and modifications in its concentration influence several physiological and pathological events such as embryogenesis, development and also aging. Regulation of oxygen levels is an important factor in neural stem cell biology (e.g. differentiation, growth and the capacity to generate more differentiated cells). Studies on neural stem cells in culture have deepened our knowledge of their survival, proliferation and differentiation pathways. However, traditional cell culture for neural stem cells is performed employing environmental oxygen levels of 20%, while the effective oxygen concentration in the developing and adult brain is significantly lower; this results in an important alteration of the in vivo conditions. Several data indicate that a so called "physiologic hypoxic condition" could strongly influence the growth of neural stem cells and their differentiation mechanisms both in vivo and in vitro. The present overview deals with the different mechanisms utilized by invertebrate and vertebrate organisms to respond to hypoxic conditions. It highlights how the adaptations and responses to different oxygen concentrations have changed along the developmental route and underlines the importance of oxygen concentration in neural physiology and differentiation, with a final hint to the involvement of hypoxia in brain cancer stem cells.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Cell Hypoxia*
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Central Nervous System / embryology
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1 / metabolism
  • Mice
  • NF-kappa B / metabolism
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Neural Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Neurogenesis
  • Oxygen / metabolism


  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1
  • NF-kappa B
  • Oxygen