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Chemical gradient steers nerve growth in spinal cord

Johns Hopkins Medical School) lost directionality of growth along the spinal cord.

If Wnt proteins could be used to entice damaged commissural neurons to regenerate and restore the connections between nerve cells of the spinal cord and the brain, it could revolutionize treatment of paralyzing spinal cord injuries.

Many researchers are studying ways to use stem cells to regenerate damaged tissues. Even if stem cells can be successfully "trained" to become the type of neurons needed and transplanted into the damaged central nervous system, "they still need to be guided precisely to their targets in order to rebuild the connections," explained Zou. "Understanding how the brain and spinal cord are connected during embryonic development should give us clues about how to repair these connections in adulthood."

But, "this is just half of the battle," Zou cautioned. A spine-injured patient would also have to rebuild the other nerves, which carry messages from the brain to the spinal cord, such as the corticospinal tracts. The cues that steer these brain axons down the spinal cord have not yet been identified.

Scientists have long wondered how something as complex as the human nervous system, with more than 100 billion neurons, each connected to a thousand or more target cells, gets correctly assembled.

In the 1990s, they found the first of many chemical signals that regulate the growth of commissural neurons, helping them locate, recognize and connect with their appropriate partners. Several sets of signals work together to guide these budding nerve cells through each step.

These cues act on the growing tips of axons, long narrow processes sent out by neurons in search of other nerve cells. Axons are tipped with growth cones that can detect extracellular signals, such as Wnt4, and then grow toward or away from the source.

The axon's journey from the cell body of a commissural neuron, found at the back of the spi
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Contact: John Easton
jeaston@uchospitals.edu
773-702-6241
University of Chicago Medical Center
11-Dec-2003


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