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(Image caption: Adult neurons are seen without (top) and following (below) treatment to inactivate Rb. Following treatment, the neurons show an increase in growth (branching) of axons. Credit: Bhagat Singh)

Scientists discover a new way to enhance nerve growth following injury

New research published today by researchers at the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute uncovers a mechanism to promote growth in damaged nerve cells.

Dr. Doug Zochodne, a professor in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences, and his team have discovered a key molecule that directly regulates nerve cell growth in the damaged nervous system. This surprising discovery was published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications, with lead authors Kim Christie and Anand Krishnan.

“We have discovered that a protein called Retinoblastoma (Rb) is present in adult neurons,” explains Zochodne. “This protein appears to normally act as a brake – preventing nerve growth. What we have shown is that by inactivating Rb, we can release the brake and coax nerves to grow much faster.”

Clues from cancer

Zochodne and his team decided to look for Rb in nerve cells because of its known role in regulating cell growth elsewhere in the body.

“We know that cancer is characterized by excessive cell growth and we also know that Rb is often functioning abnormally in cancer,” says Zochodne. “So if cancer is able to release this brake and increase cell growth, we thought we’d try to mimic this same action in nerve cells and encourage growth where we want it.”

The key to this methodology, as Zochodne explains, is shutting down the brake for a very short, controlled period of time in order to avoid adverse effects such as excessive cell growth that could lead to cancer.

“In our tests, we were able to do this for a short amount of time,” says Zochodne. “We didn’t see any negative results, which leaves us optimistic that this could one day be used as a safe treatment for patients suffering from nerve damage.”

Peripheral nerve injuries and illnesses  

So far, Zochodne is only investigating this technique in the peripheral nervous system. Peripheral nerves connect the brain and spinal cord to the body and without them, there is no movement or sensation. Peripheral nerve damage can be incredibly debilitating, with patients experiencing symptoms like pain, tingling, numbness or difficulty co-ordinating hands, feet, arms or legs.

As Zochodne explains, “peripheral nerve damage is surprisingly common. We see patients with cut or crushed nerves from motor vehicle accidents and we also see patients that suffer from conditions called neuropathies – a range of disorders that damage peripheral nerves.”

For example, diabetic neuropathy is more common than multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) combined. More than half of all diabetics have some form of nerve pain and currently there is no treatment to stop damage or reverse it.

Facility a one-stop shop for translating discoveries from the lab into the clinic

Developing safe and effective therapies for conditions such as peripheral nerve disorders requires the ability to take investigations from cells in a petri dish to patients in a clinic. Zochodne and his team have been able to do that thanks in part to a preclinical facility that opened at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) in 2010. The Regeneration Unit in Neurobiology (RUN) was created through a partnership between the HBI, the University of Calgary and the Canada-Alberta Western Economic Partnership Agreement.
“The RUN facility has been critical for this research,” says Zochodne. “It provides the resources and cutting-edge equipment that we need all in one facility. RUN has allowed us to take this idea from nerve cells, to animal models and eventually will help us investigate whether it could be a feasible treatment in humans. It’s an incredible asset.”


Science-inspired necklaces from the Delftia Etsy store


(Image caption:The image depicts mice having a normal nerve (left) as compared to an incomplete nerve, a condition resulting in permanent downward gaze in both mice and humans. Image courtesy of Jeremy Duncan)

Researchers track down cause of eye mobility disorder

Imagine you cannot move your eyes up, and you cannot lift your upper eyelid. You walk through life with your head tilted upward so that your eyes look straight when they are rolled down in the eye socket. Obviously, such a condition should be corrected to allow people a normal position of their head. In order to correct this condition, one would need to understand why this happens.

In a paper published in the April 16 print issue of the journal Neuron, University of Iowa researchers Bernd Fritzsch and Jeremy Duncan and their colleagues at Harvard Medical School, along with investigator and corresponding author Elizabeth Engle, describe how their studies on mutated mice mimic human mutations.

It all started when Engle, a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and Fritzsch, professor and departmental executive officer in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of Biology, began their interaction on the stimulation of eye muscles by their nerves, or “innervation,” around 20 years ago.

Approximately 10 years ago, Engle had identified the mutated genes in several patients with the eye movement disorder and subsequently developed a mouse with the same mutation she had identified in humans. However, while the effect on eye muscle innervation was comparable, there still was no clue as to why this should happen.

Fritzsch and his former biology doctoral student, Jeremy Duncan, worked with the Harvard researchers on a developmental study to find the point at which normal development of eye muscle innervations departs from the mutants. To their surprise, it happened very early in development. In fact, they found—only in mutant mice—a unique swelling in one of the nerves to the eye muscle.

More detailed analysis showed that these swellings came about because fibers extending to the eyes from the brain tried to leave the nerve as if they were already in the orbit, or eye socket. Since it happened so early, the researchers reasoned that something must be transported more effectively by this mutation to the motor neurons trying to reach the orbit and the eye muscles; something must be causing these motor neurons to assume they have already reached their target, the orbit of the eye.

To verify this enhanced function, the researchers developed another mouse that lacked the specific protein and found no defects in muscle innervation. Moreover, when they bred mice that carried malformed proteins with those that had none of these proteins, the mice developed a normal innervation.

This data provided clear evidence of what was going wrong and why, but it did not provide a clue as to the possible product that was more effectively transported in the mutant mice and, by logical extension, in humans. Further analysis revealed that breeding their mutant mice with another mutant having eye muscle innervation defects could enhance the effect of either mutation.

With this finding, they had identified the mutated protein, its enhanced function, and at least some of the likely cargo transported by this protein to allow normal innervation of eye muscles. This data provides the necessary level of understanding to design rational approaches to block the defect from developing.

Knowing what goes wrong and at what time during development can allow the problem to be corrected before it develops through proper manipulations. Engle, Fritzsch, and their collaborators currently are designing new approaches to rescue normal innervation in mice. In the future, their work may help families carrying such genetic mutations to have children with normal eye movement.


Artificial blood ‘will be manufactured in factories’

Wellcome Trust-funded stem cell research has produced red blood cells fit for transfusion into humans, paving the way for the mass production of blood.

Artificial blood ‘will be manufactured in factories’ - Telegraph

(via science-junkie)


Close-ups of butterfly wing scales! You should definitely click on these images to get the full detail.

I’ve paired each amazing close-up (by macro photographer Linden Gledhill) with an image of the corresponding butterfly or moth.  The featured lepidoptera* are (in order of appearance):

*Lepidoptera (the scientific order that includes moths and butterflies) means “scaly wing.” The scales get their color not from pigment - but from microscopic structures that manipulate light.

The great science youtube channel “Smarter Every Day” has two videos on this very subject that I highly recommend:

(via science-junkie)


Artistic microscope slides produced in the Victorian era (1840~1900) by arranging hundreds of tiny diatoms into intricate patterns.  This was often accomplished by using a single hair to move the diatoms in a special chamber that prevented disturbance to the slide.  The fabrication of these amazing objects must have required incredible patience, attention to detail, and a steady hand.

Victorian era? Awesome!

(via staceythinx)


Brain activity drives dynamic changes in neural fiber insulation

The brain is a wonderfully flexible and adaptive learning tool. For decades, researchers have known that this flexibility, called plasticity, comes from selective strengthening of well-used synapses — the connections between nerve cells.

Now, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have demonstrated that brain plasticity also comes from another mechanism: activity-dependent changes in the cells that insulate neural fibers and make them more efficient. These cells form a specialized type of insulation called myelin.

“Myelin plasticity is a fascinating concept that may help to explain how the brain adapts in response to experience or training,” said Michelle Monje, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurology and neurological sciences.

The researchers’ findings are described in a paper published online April 10 in Science Express.

“The findings illustrate a form of neural plasticity based in myelin, and future work on the molecular mechanisms responsible may ultimately shed light on a broad range of neurological and psychiatric diseases,” said Monje, senior author of the paper. The lead authors of the study are Stanford postdoctoral scholar Erin Gibson, PhD, and graduate student David Purger.

Sending neural impulses quickly down a long nerve fiber requires insulation with myelin, which is formed by a cell called an oligodendrocyte that wraps itself around a neuron. Even small changes in the structure of this insulating sheath, such as changes in its thickness, can dramatically affect the speed of neural-impulse conduction. Demyelinating disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, attack these cells and degrade nerve transmission, especially over long distances.

Myelin-insulated nerve fibers make up the “white matter” of the brain, the vast tracts that connect one information-processing area of the brain to another. “If you think of the brain’s infrastructure as a city, the white matter is like the roads, highways and freeways that connect one place to another,” Monje said.

In the study, Monje and her colleagues showed that nerve activity prompts oligodendrocyte precursor cell proliferation and differentiation into myelin-forming oligodendrocytes. Neuronal activity also causes an increase in the thickness of the myelin sheaths within the active neural circuit, making signal transmission along the neural fiber more efficient. It’s much like a system for improving traffic flow along roadways that are heavily used, Monje said. And as with a transportation system, improving the routes that are most productive makes the whole system more efficient.

In recent years, researchers have seen clues that nerve cell activity could promote the growth of myelin insulation. There have been studies that showed a correlation between experience and myelin dynamics, and studies of isolated cells in a dish suggesting a relationship between neuronal activity and myelination. But there has been no way to show that neuronal activity directly causes myelin changes in an intact brain. “You can’t really implant an electrode in the brain to answer this question because the resulting injury changes the behavior of the cells,” Monje said.

The solution was a relatively new and radical technique called optogenetics. Scientists insert genes for a light-sensitive ion channel into a specific group of neurons. Those neurons can be made to fire when exposed to particular wavelengths of light. In the study, Monje and her colleagues used mice with light-sensitive ion channels in an area of their brains that controls movement. The scientists could then turn on and off certain movement behaviors in the mice by turning on and off the light. Because the light diffuses from a source placed at the surface of the brain down to the neurons being studied, there was no need to insert a probe directly next to the neurons, which would have created an injury.

By directly stimulating the neurons with light, the researchers were able to show it was the activation of the neurons that prompted the myelin-forming cells to respond.

Further research could reveal exactly how activity promotes oligodendrocyte-precursor-cell proliferation and maturation, as well as dynamic changes in myelin. Such a molecular understanding could help researchers develop therapeutic strategies that promote myelin repair in diseases in which myelin is degraded, such as multiple sclerosis, the leukodystrophies and spinal cord injury.

“Conversely, when growth of these cells is dysregulated, how does that contribute to disease?” Monje said. One particular area of interest for her is a childhood brain cancer called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma. The cancer, which usually strikes children between 5 and 9 years old and is inevitably fatal, occurs when the brain myelination that normally takes place as kids become more physically coordinated goes awry, and the brain cells grow out of control.


At TEDxYouth@Manchester, genetics researcher Dan Davis introduces the audience to compatibility genes — key players in our immune system’s functioning, and the reason why it’s so difficult to transplant organs from person to person: one’s compatibility genes must match another’s for a transplant to take.

To learn more about these fascinating genes, watch the whole talk here»

(Images from Davis’s talk, Drew Berry’s animations, and the TED-Ed lessons A needle in countless haystacks: Finding habitable worlds - Ariel Anbar and How we conquered the deadly smallpox virus - Simona Zompi)

(via science-junkie)