AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 26, Number 1, 2017

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Scientists See Motor Neurons 'Walking' in Real Time

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New technology developed by scientists from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies shows how spinal cord cells make connections with motor neurons, providing more insight into spinal cord injuries and neurodegenerative diseases, such as amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). “Using optical methods to be able to watch neuron activity has been a dream over the past decade,” said the study’s lead researcher. “Now, it’s one of those rare times when the technology is actually coming together to show you things you hadn’t been able to see before.” The research group used the new method to answer a long-standing question about how a collection of cells in the spinal cord, called the locomotor central pattern generator (CPG), connects to the right motor neurons to allow movements like walking. The CPG is where relatively simple signals from the brain — to walk forward, or move your hand off a hot stove — are translated into more complex instructions for motor neurons to control muscles. By tweaking the locations and identities of motor neurons, and then watching the resulting patterns of activation using their new fluorescent technique, researchers found that the CPG didn’t rely solely on the cells’ locations to connect to them. Instead, the genetic identity of each subtype of cells — what makes those that control the quadriceps muscle different from those that control the calf muscle, for instance — is also important. That’s a key finding, according to the Salk scientists, for research on how to treat spinal cord injuries and ALS. Currently, researchers are attempting to turn stem cells into motor neurons, which they then implant into the spinal cord to regenerate damaged connections. The new results from the current study suggest that general motor neurons might not do the trick — the best treatment may require the right subtypes of motor neurons. More work, however, is needed to understand the implications of this and how it might translate to disease treatment. To read more about this study, click here.

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