A team of investigators from MIT identified three proteins from the same family that appear to be responsible for the formation of axons and dendrites, as well as neurites (precursors to axons and dendrites), within the neurons of the brain:
The team, led by MIT biology professor Frank Gertler, found that a certain family of proteins is necessary to direct the formation of axons and dendrites, the cellular extensions that facilitate communication between neurons.
The work focuses on cellular outgrowths called neurites, which are the precursors to axons and dendrites. Understanding how neurites form could eventually lead to therapies involving stimulation of neurite growth, said Gertler.
“You could use these insights to help repair injuries to the top of the spinal column, or treat brain injuries or neurodegenerative disorders,” he said.
The researchers developed the first model that allows for study of the effects of this protein family, known as the Ena/VASP proteins. The team reported aspects of their work in the Nov. 11 issue of Neuron and the Nov. 18 online edition of Nature Cell Biology.
The majority of neurons in the cerebral cortex have a single axon–a long, thin extension that relays information to other cells–and many shorter dendrites, which receive messages from other cells. The interconnection of these axons and dendrites is essential to create a functional neural circuit.
In their study, the researchers found that mice without the three Ena/VASP proteins did produce brain cells, but those neurons were unable to extend any axons or dendrites.
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