Helping Brain Cells Grow Branches for Healthy Communication

Animated illustration shows how nerve growth depends on stability of cellular railways.

Every thought we have occurs when the cells in our brain – called neurons – talk to each other. A single neuron sends information to many other neurons through branches, or thread-like structures that almost look like the roots of a tree. The growth and strength of these branches rely on the stability of their infrastructure, which is made up of microtubules. Recently, researchers from Thomas Jefferson University found that a protein called MAP7 makes microtubules more stable, which in turn helps neurons have healthy branches.

(Watch the video below for an animated illustration of what the researchers found)

“Like the railways to a new city, stable microtubules transport building material to newly formed branches so that they can grow and mature,” explains Dr. Le Ma, associate professor in the department of Neuroscience and senior author of the study. When injured, or if there isn’t enough building material available, these branches do not grow well. In fact, they retract, making it harder for neurons to form lasting connections. Understanding the role of MAP7 in making the railway more stable could help make sure that branches have the material to withstand injury.

Dr. Ma, along with a postdoctoral fellow in the lab, Stephen Tymanskyj, PhD, used genetic tools to remove MAP7 from neurons and found that without MAP7, branches can still grow but they retract more frequently. The researchers also added more MAP7 to branches that had been cut by a laser and found that it could slow down or even prevent retraction that usually happens in response to injury. This suggests that manipulation of MAP7 could potentially rescue injured branches.

“Our research has not only identified a new mechanism that stabilizes microtubules, but also suggests a new target to potentially treat nerve injury,” says Dr. Ma.

Read more about the research here.

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Science and Technology