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New technology shows axons are extremely sensitive to directional cues

Washington, D.C. Researchers at Georgetown University have developed a novel technology to precisely measure the sensitivity of nerve fibers that wire up the brain during development. Through use of this technology, they discovered that these fibers, or axons, possess an incredible sensitivity to molecular guidance cues that direct the axon's route to its desired destination in the brain. Their findings are described in the June issue of Nature Neuroscience.

Similar to connecting your PC, monitor, mouse and printer correctly to make all computer parts work, the developing brain needs a series of critical wiring connections to be made for it to function properly. But, unlike computers that come with a user and troubleshooting manual, nerve fibers called axons must follow molecular cues to find the right targets.

Much work has been done to understand what molecules are involved in this process, called axonal guidance. However, no technology until now allowed researchers to create a controllable, stable gradient with which one could measure the sensitivity of axons to gradients, and how that sensitivity can impact and guide the development of connections in the brain.

"I was curious about the physics of this wiring up process, which led our lab in a different direction than others who study axonal guidance," said Geoff Goodhill, PhD associate professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University Medical Center. "Once we had created a stable environment and could control molecular gradients, we were amazed to discover just how sensitive axons are to tiny changes in the concentration of molecular cues. We've found that a difference in concentration of a single molecule across the tip of an axon can measurably impact the direction in which the axons grow."

Goodhill notes this physics-based approach to understanding gradients affect axons may eventually assist researchers who study how the nervous system regenerates after in
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Contact: Elizabeth McDonald
eem6@georgetown.edu
202-687-7707
Georgetown University Medical Center
23-May-2004


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