Molecular 'stop signs' may hold secret of nerve regeneration

Using brain cells from rats, scientists at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the University of Hamburg have manipulated a molecular "stop sign" so that the injured nerve cells regenerate.

While their findings are far from application in people, the prospects for eventually being able to repair spinal cord injury are brighter, they say.

"Four thousand years ago, physicians wrote that spinal cord injury was untreatable, and unfortunately it's much the same today," says Ronald L. Schnaar, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and of neuroscience at Hopkins. "But the basic-science framework for improving this situation is quickly emerging."

In adult mammals, including humans, molecular signals carefully control the number of contacts nerve cells make by inhibiting new connections. When the brain or spinal cord has been damaged, the goal is to neutralize those inhibitors so that the long tentacles of nerve cells, the axons, might reestablish their broken connections, says Schnaar.

The research team reports identifying brain chemicals that are involved in the ability of one of the inhibitors to prevent injured nerve cells from connecting to other nerves or muscles. By keeping the chemicals from interacting with the inhibitor, the researchers were able to stimulate damaged nerve cells to regenerate in laboratory dishes. Their report is in the June 11 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"In the central nervous system, once an axon is interrupted in some way, through disease or injury, generally it's stopped dead in its tracks, but in the rest of the body, damaged axons can re-grow," says Schnaar. "To make headway in treating brain and spinal cord injury, we need to attack this problem from a number of angles, and our studies have provided an additional target for intervention."

Of the "stop signs" identified so far, Schnaar's team focused on MAG, or myelin-associated glycoprotein, whi

Contact: Joanna Downer
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions

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