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How Transparent Roundworms Have Furthered Our Understanding of Nerve Degeneration

Researchers at the University of Queensland have learned more about how nerve cells are destroyed. By using transparent roundworms, they’ve discovered two proteins which they believe have a big role to play in the degeneration of axons in nerve cells. Furthermore, they found that it’s the long, thread like sections of the nerve cells, known as axons, that are the first parts of the nerve to be destroyed in neurodegenerative disease. These are the part of the cell that transmit information.

Looking for better ways to protect the neurons and stop the degeneration of the axons

The research team, who are based at the Queensland Brain Institute and led by Associate Professor Massimo Hilliard, wanted to find out more about the molecules that are involved in this degeneration of axons. It was hoped that this information could then inform further research to help find and develop better methods to protect the neurons.

The two new proteins were discovered by using a laser to cut through the axons in the Caenorhabditis elegans roundworm. This particular roundworm is around 1mm in length, and only has 302 neurons, making it an ideal model for research. By cutting through the axons, it gave the researchers the opportunity to see what happens during their degeneration on both a molecular and genetic level. Their findings suggest that as the neuron dies, there is cross-talk between the neuron and the tissue around it, with the neuron sending a signal that it needs to be cleaned up.

The discovery of the two proteins will inform future research

This discovery has given researchers new impetus for further research to find new ways to limit the degenerative process and better preserve the neurons; particularly as the two proteins found seem to be able to alter the membrane around the damaged neurons. As a result of the evolution process, these two proteins also exist in flies, mice and humans, which means that further testing to determine the full nature of these proteins and their effects on neurons will be a next step in the quest to find a cure for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The study was published in the online journal Cell Reports and was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, The Australian Research Council and the National Institutes of Health.

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