Cell biologists discover crucial 'traffic regulator' in neurons

April 19, 2017

Neurons are the main cells in the nervous system. They process information by sending, receiving, and combining signals from around the brain and the body. All neurons have a cell body where molecules vital for its functioning and maintenance are produced. The axon, a long and slender extension that can reach one metre in length in humans, sends information from the nerve cell to other nerve cells. Neuronal survival is highly dependent on the transport of vital molecules within this axon. Research has shown that defects in the transport function in the axons play a key role in degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer.

First comprehensive map

"Previous research examined transport processes in small areas of the axon, such as the very beginning or the very end. This left it unclear how the movement of molecules through the axon was regulated over long distances. In our study, we provide the first comprehensive map of transport in mammalian axons", says Casper Hoogenraad, Professor of Cell Biology at Utrecht University, explaining the relevance of this study.

Stumped

In most neurons, an area between the cell body and the axon called the 'axon initial segment' serves as a checkpoint: only some molecules can pass through it. This area has stumped scientists for more than a decade. Why should one type of molecule be able to pass through this area, while others cannot? The answer is to be found in the traffic regulator, a protein called MAP2. "With this discovery, we have answered a fundamental question about the unique functioning of nerve cells that has occupied scientists for a long time", lead author of the study Dr Laura Gumy says.

Driving force

The cell biologists from Utrecht first discovered that larger quantities of MAP2 accumulate between the cell body and the axon. When they removed MAP2 from the neuron, the normal pattern of molecule movement changed. Certain molecules suddenly ceased to enter the axon, whereas others accumulated in the axon instead of passing through to the cell body. This abnormal transport indicates that MAP2 is the driving force behind transport within the axon.

Car key

The cell biologists from Utrecht University went on to make another very important discovery. Since axons are so long, transport in the neurons is carried out by sets of proteins - known as 'motor proteins' - that carry packages of other proteins on their back. As it turns out, MAP2 is able to switch a specific 'motor protein' on or off, like a car key. This means that MAP2 actually controls which packages of molecules may enter the axon and which may not. Targeting the activity of the transport engine allowed the researchers to make another interesting discovery: MAP2 is also able to control the delivery of molecules at specific points along the axon.

New targets for therapies

"Transport within axons has been shown to fail in Alzheimer, Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease, as well as in many other diseases. When the neuron is no longer able to control where molecules go, or is unable to get molecules to where they need to be, it cannot do its job. By understanding how transport works, we have laid the foundation for considering new targets and potential therapies for various neurodegenerative disorders", Casper Hoogenraad concludes.
-end-


Utrecht University

Related Neurons Articles from Brightsurf:

Paying attention to the neurons behind our alertness
The neurons of layer 6 - the deepest layer of the cortex - were examined by researchers from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University to uncover how they react to sensory stimulation in different behavioral states.

Trying to listen to the signal from neurons
Toyohashi University of Technology has developed a coaxial cable-inspired needle-electrode.

A mechanical way to stimulate neurons
Magnetic nanodiscs can be activated by an external magnetic field, providing a research tool for studying neural responses.

Extraordinary regeneration of neurons in zebrafish
Biologists from the University of Bayreuth have discovered a uniquely rapid form of regeneration in injured neurons and their function in the central nervous system of zebrafish.

Dopamine neurons mull over your options
Researchers at the University of Tsukuba have found that dopamine neurons in the brain can represent the decision-making process when making economic choices.

Neurons thrive even when malnourished
When animal, insect or human embryos grow in a malnourished environment, their developing nervous systems get first pick of any available nutrients so that new neurons can be made.

The first 3D map of the heart's neurons
An interdisciplinary research team establishes a new technological pipeline to build a 3D map of the neurons in the heart, revealing foundational insight into their role in heart attacks and other cardiac conditions.

Mapping the neurons of the rat heart in 3D
A team of researchers has developed a virtual 3D heart, digitally showcasing the heart's unique network of neurons for the first time.

How to put neurons into cages
Football-shaped microscale cages have been created using special laser technologies.

A molecule that directs neurons
A research team coordinated by the University of Trento studied a mass of brain cells, the habenula, linked to disorders like autism, schizophrenia and depression.

Read More: Neurons News and Neurons Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.