A group of researchers from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) has revolutionized the recovery of nerves, finding a way to restore nerve fibers in mice. They identified a gene that prevents fiber from growing if nerve connections are damaged.
The gene they discovered is called Cacna2d2, and it serves as a kind of molecular brake. However, now that scientists have found a way to disable this so-called brake, there is hope of developing new methods for treating conditions such as paralysis and spinal cord injuries that have so far been impossible to cure.
Scientists from the Center began their studies with the theory that such a molecular brake naturally exists – something that stops the growth of neurons when we become adults, and our bodies are fully formed. According to lead researcher Frank Bradke, to find such a mechanism was similar to “searching for proverbs in a haystack.”
Using a data analysis approach called bioinformatics, a process in which computers study and interpret biological information, the team was able to finally get close to the gene they were looking for.
“Ultimately, we were able to identify a promising candidate,” says Bradke. “This gene, known as Cacna2d2, plays an important role in the formation and functioning of synapses, in other words, in eliminating the ultimate rupture between nerve cells.”
The gene, Cacna2d2, is somewhat of a plan for a protein that controls the flow of calcium particles into cells – and calcium levels affect the release of neurotransmitters that are similar to instant messengers that travel through synapses.
Nevertheless, this same mechanism also seems to prevent the passage of bridges between neurons, called axons, from growth.
The researchers wanted to test their theory of a molecular brake so that they injected a drug called Pregabalin (PGB) to mice with spinal cord injuries. It is known that PHB has a binding effect on these calcium channels and is often prescribed to relieve pain in patients with damaged nerves, as well as patients suffering from epilepsy.
After mice were injected with PGB, the researchers discovered new neural connections that begin to form and grow.
“Our research shows that the formation of synapses acts as a powerful switch that restrains the growth of axons,” says Bradke. “A clinically relevant drug can manipulate this effect.”
Elimination of the damaged link between neurons is a major medical puzzle with many different subjects, but with hard work and dedication, scientists finally make breakthroughs. Only at the beginning of this year, a team of researchers from the United States discovered a link between mitochondria – the sources of nutrition in cells – and the regeneration of nerve cells in mice.
We still have a long way to go when it comes to damage to the spinal cord, since a positive result in recent experiments has so far been carried out only in mice. No one can say for certain whether it will have the same effect on people if new clinical trials using PGB are conducted. However, researchers hope and believe that they have come to a revolutionary discovery that can potentially change the lives of millions of people suffering from this problem.
“Patients with PHB can experience a regenerative effect if it is received soon,” says Bradke. “In the long term, this can lead to a new approach to treatment. However, we do not know yet.
The results were published in Neuron.
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