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Gradient guides nerve growth down spinal cord

The same family of chemical signals that attracts developing sensory nerves up the spinal cord toward the brain serves to repel motor nerves, sending them in the opposite direction, down the cord and away from the brain, report researchers at the University of Chicago in the September 2005 issue of Nature Neuroscience (available online August 14). The finding may help physicians restore function to people with paralyzing spinal cord injuries.

Growing nerve cells send out axons, long narrow processes that search out and connect with other nerve cells. Axons are tipped with growth cones, bearing specific receptors, which detect chemical signals and then grow toward or away from the source.

In 2003, University of Chicago researchers reported that a gradient of biochemical signals known as the Wnt proteins acted as a guide for sensory nerves. These nerves have a receptor on the tips of their growth cones, known as Frizzled3, which responds to Wnts.

In this paper, the researchers show that the nerves growing in the opposite direction are driven down the cord, away from the brain, under the guidance of a receptor, known as Ryk, with very different tastes. Ryk sees Wnts as repulsive signals.

"This is remarkable example of the efficiency of nature," said Yimin Zou, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology, pharmacology and physiology at the University of Chicago. "The nervous system is using a similar set of chemical signals to regulate axon traffic in both directions along the length of the spinal cord."

It may also prove a boon to clinicians, offering clues about how to grow new connections among neurons to repair or replace damaged nerves. Unlike many other body components, damaged axons in the adult spinal cord cannot adequately repair themselves. An estimated 250,000 people in the United States suffer from permanent spinal cord injuries, with about 11,000 new cases each year.

This study focused on corticospinal neurons,
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Source:University of Chicago Medical Center


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