DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke University Medical Center neurobiologists have protected growing brain cells from atrophying from disuse by treating them with a protein believed to be involved in helping the brain "wire" itself.
The achievement with laboratory animals, reported in the Nov. 9 issue of Nature, shows that the proteins, called neurotrophins, can foster brain cell growth, and that they might offer treatment for diseases involving gain or loss of brain cell connections. These disorders might include some forms of mental retardation, certain psychiatric conditions, epilepsy and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson'" disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
The researchers are postdoctoral fellow David Riddle, Assistant Professor Donald Lo and Associate Professor Lawrence Katz, all of the medical center's department of neurobiology. Their research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Klingenstein and McKnight foundations.
In a separate paper in the October issue of Neuron, the scientists reported the first steps in deciphering the intercellular chemical "language" that neurotrophins use in fostering brain cell growth. Graduate student Kimberley McAllister, Lo and Katz reported finding that different regions of the brain's visual cortex sprout connections, called dendrites, in response to different neurotrophins. Understanding this chemical language is a first step in learning to manipulate the growth of brain cells, the scientists said.
Previous studies at Duke and elsewhere have shown that neurotrophins generally increase the survival and growth of brain cells, or neurons. However, it was not known whether neurotrophins were, indeed, key substances that cause the brain to "wire" itself into certain functional patterns as a result of experience. The new studies, however, show that the neurotrophins are specifically critical to the growth and interconnections of developing cells.