Research may lead to jump-starting damaged nerve cells

Results hold possibilities for treating Parkinsons and Lou Gehrigs disease

HOUSTON, Jan. 18, 2002 New research from University of Houston scientists may lead to techniques for jump-starting the faulty wiring in damaged nerve cells, and suggests possible avenues for treating spinal cord injuries, Parkinsons disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrigs disease.

University of Houston scientists studying how spinal nerve cells in chicken embryos develop and function have found that chemicals called growth factors play a key role in regulating how embryonic nerve cells acquire the ability to start processing information.

In some cases, when nerves are damaged or succumb to neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS and Parkinsons, they dont die, but they quit working and may actually revert to an immature embryonic-like state, says Stuart Dryer, a neuroscientist in the department of biology and biochemistry at UH.

Embryonic nerve cells are able to fire electrical impulses shortly after the cells have divided for the last time after they are born. But these impulses are extremely generic, and not necessarily specialized for the kind of information the cell is going to eventually process, Dryer says.

Initially, the cells are becoming connected, like the individual circuit elements in a computer, and the message that gets through is one that says Im hooking up rather than Im processing information, Dryer says. The developing embryonic cells must somehow acquire the ability to discharge and route electrical impulses in a coordinated, highly specialized fashion.

If damaged cells have indeed entered a kind of immature state, perhaps we can kick-start them back to their proper function using the natural pathways embryonic cells take to become fully functioning nerve cells, Dryer says. Nerve cells, or neurons, connect to each other in complex networks, carrying electrical and chemical signals throug

Contact: Amanda Siegfried
University of Houston

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