Finding clues for nerve cell repair

June 3, 2008

A new study at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University identifies a key mechanism for the normal development of motor nerve cells (motor neurons) - cells that control muscles. This finding is crucial to understanding and treating a range of conditions involving nerve cell loss or damage, from spinal cord injury to neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Nerve cell regeneration is a complex process. Not only do nerve cells have to regenerate, but just as importantly, their specific and individual connections need to be regenerated also. The study, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides invaluable insight into these vital processes by understanding the mechanisms involved in normal development of selected types of spinal cord motor nerve cells.

Motor neurons are highly specialized. They have distinct characteristics and connect to specific muscle types in specific regions of the body. "These highly targeted nerve cell-to-muscle connections are determined in part by specific patterns of gene expression during embryonic development. More specifically, certain genes are expressed which tell the neuron what its properties will be, where to settle and which particular muscle to connect with," says Dr. Stefano Stifani, neuroscientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute and lead investigator in the study.

When nerve cells develop they require characteristic patterns of gene expression in order to become motor neurons or another type of nerve cell called interneurons. Dr. Stifani and colleagues show that during development, motor nerve cells have to express certain genes that continually suppress interneuron developmental characteristics.

"We have identified a key factor, called Runx1, which controls the correct development of motor neurons in the upper part of the spinal cord. Runx1, a factor that controls gene expression, helps motor neurons to maintain their status by regulating the expression of specific genes. In doing so, it might also help motor neurons find their target muscles."

Understanding the normal development and the highly specialized nature of nerve cells has important implications for understanding diseased or damaged nerve cells. For example, in ALS, the motor nerve cells that are involved in swallowing and controlling the tongue are often the first to degenerate. Knowing the specific patterns of gene expression of different motor nerve cells may help to explain why certain motor neurons are more susceptible to degeneration and help identify new targets for treatments.

Source: Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital

Explore further: Study of 'senior citizen' marine snails uncovered how nerve cells fail during learning

Related Stories

Driving myelination by actin disassembly

July 27, 2015

(Phys.org)—If a metallurgist wanted to determine how a blade was made they might cut a small cross section, mount, polish, and etch it, and then look at it under a microscope. They could probably tell right away whether ...

Device may allow sensations in prosthetic hands

May 13, 2015

To the nearly 2 million people in the U.S. living with the loss of a limb, including U.S. military veterans, prosthetic devices provide restored mobility yet lack sensory feedback. A team of engineers and researchers at Washington ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

CactusCritter
not rated yet Jun 04, 2008
The British use the term "motor neuron disease" for the pathology that in this country is described as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. The British term provides such a concise description of the nature of the pathology that I cannot understand why we use ALS and Lou Gehrig's disease in this country.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.