A study in worms that are less than a millimetre long has yielded clues that may be important for understanding how nerves grow.
A team of researchers from the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) has probed the molecular mechanisms which prompt the development of dendrites, in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans.
Dendrites are the branch-like structures in nerve cells, which receive electrochemical signals from other nerve cells or sensory inputs from the external environment.
Along with the cable-like structures called axons, which transmit electrical impulses between neurons, dendrites are crucial to nervous system function but their development has been poorly understood to date.
However, the QBI team has discovered that a ligand called LIN-44 and a receptor called LIN-17 work together to coax certain neurons in C. elegans to extend dendrites towards their targets.
“This is the first study to demonstrate, in vivo, that the initial outgrowth of a dendrite is controlled by these ligands and receptors,” says Ms Leonie Kirszenblat, the research assistant who carried out the study in Dr Massimo Hilliard’s lab.
Understanding these fundamental mechanisms of neuronal development may have practical, as well as theoretical implications, says Dr Hilliard.
“Having the ability to control dendritic growth may be important for growing neurons from stem cells, which could be useful in a range of neurologic conditions, including spinal injury,” he says.
The findings were published in the latest issue of PLoS Biology.
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NOTES TO THE EDITOR:
Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory
The Hilliard laboratory uses the nematode C. elegans to study neuronal development using a combination of genetics, molecular biology and imaging techniques. In particular, researchers investigate how the axonal and dendrite structures develop and are maintained over time, and how they can be reconstituted after injury.
Queensland Brain Institute
The Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) was established as a research institute of the University of Queensland in 2003. The Institute is now operating out of a new $63 million state-of-the-art facility and houses 33 principal investigators with strong international reputations. QBI is one of the largest neuroscience institutes in the world dedicated to understanding the mechanisms underlying brain function.