Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Genetic analysis reveals new ways for nerve repair

Neurons are well-known for their poor capacity of regeneration or repair. In the case of brain or spinal cord damage, repair is almost impossible, often leaving permanent damage in the case of stroke or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. While scientists have looked at artificial ways of restoring neurons after damage, a research group has found 70 genes that could be used for repair mechanisms already present in the body. Discovering how these genes work, which proteins they produce and their behaviour after neuronal damage could tell us more about how we can get the body to repair neuronal damage.

The scientists screened a total of 654 genes in C. Elegans, a worm-like creature that is favourite among geneticists. From their study, they derived 70 genes that play a role in the restoration of the axon, the 'tail' of neurons, which is used to make contact with other neurons to transmit information. Axons function by conducting electrical signals throughout the body, from neuron to neuron. They are needed for neuronal communication: to transmit information to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), to communicate within the central nervous system, and to send information from the central nervous system to different parts of the body. We rely on axons for every part of our physiological behaviour, be it conscious or unconscious, as neurons can not function without them. 

A lot of the 70 genes that were found belong to clusters that are used for several processes, such as guidance of the axon's path towards other neurons, the potential of electrical stimulation of the neuron, transmitting neuronal signals and recycling the material needed to transmit neuronal signals. This highlights that the genetic analysis revealed genes relevant for neuronal health.

If we gain more information about the function of these genes, and the pathways we belong to, we might be able to develop new therapeutics to repair damage in diseases where we are currently unable to. For example, any brain damage induced after stroke is permanent, and we can not stop the degenerative process of Alzheimer's disease, which slowly causes the memory of the brain to stop functioning.

There are a lot of other approaches to restore neurons. Recent studies show that electrical stimulation of the brain is able to restore memory cells in the brain, improving the production of new brain cells, and correspondingly improve memory function. In addition, a new type of stem cell that has recently been discovered might be able to differentiate into neurons upon our command, also restoring damaged cells. Stem cells restoring damaged tissue is common in other organs, where stem cells continuously renew the tissues, to keep the organ functioning. It is hypothesized that our ageing process corresponds to the ageing of these adult stem cells that constantly renew organs. Recent studies show we might be able to rejuvenate old stem cells, in an attempt to delay the ageing process. 

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