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The same characteristics can be acquired differently when it comes to neurons

June 14, 2018

Distinct molecular mechanisms can generate the same features in different neurons, a team of scientists has discovered. Its findings, which appear in the journal Cell, enhance our understanding of brain cell development.

"We now have a better comprehension of how neurons form and acquire the features that allow them to fulfill their function in neural circuits that lead to specific behaviors," explains Nikos Konstantinides, a post-doctoral fellow at New York University's Department of Biology and one of the paper's lead authors. "These results point to several potential pathways for medical advancement, such as directing stem cells towards specific neuronal types that can be used to treat brain diseases by cell replacement therapy or by triggering neural stem cells to replace damaged tissue."

The brain contains many types of neurons that control our behavior; each neuron has distinct features that allow them to exert different functions. In order to regulate their interactions, neurons communicate with each other using specific chemicals called neurotransmitters.

The focus of the research published in Cell were the neurons in the visual system of the fruit fly Drosophila, which is commonly studied in deciphering the basic principles that direct the functions of the brain.

Conducted in the laboratories of Professor Claude Desplan, the paper's senior author, at the Center for Genomics and Systems Biology at NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU's Department of Biology, the study deployed a cutting-edge technology, Drop-seq, to sequence the genes expressed in each of tens of thousands of cells.

Their results showed that different neuronal types in the fly visual system can acquire similar features--specifically, expression of the same neurotransmitter--using different mechanisms.

More broadly, the researchers discovered that this dynamic applies to other neuronal characteristics, resulting in a deeper understanding of how complex brain tissue composed of hundreds of interconnected cell types can form.

"The human brain is extremely complex and contains neurons belonging to thousands of cell types, rendering it technically very challenging to study and to understand how neurons are generated and specified," explains Katarina Kapuralin, a post-doctoral researcher at NYU Abu Dhabi and the study's other lead author. "It is therefore necessary to study simpler nervous systems where we can use new technology to understand each of the cells that compose these brains. This will help us define fundamental rules that apply to more complex nervous systems."
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The study also included Chaimaa Fadil, an undergraduate student at NYU Abu Dhabi at the time of the research and currently a Rhodes Scholar, Luendreo Barboza, an NYU doctoral candidate, and Rahul Satija, who is an assistant professor in NYU's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology and a core faculty member at the New York Genome Center.

This work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R01 EY017916), the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute (G-1205C), and by a National Institutes of Health New Innovator Award (DP2-HG-009623).

DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.05.021

About New York University

Founded in 1831, NYU is one of the world's foremost research universities and is a member of the selective Association of American Universities. NYU has degree-granting university campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai; has eleven other global academic sites, including London, Paris, Florence, Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, and Accra; and both sends more students to study abroad and educates more international students than any other U.S. college or university. Through its numerous schools and colleges, NYU is a leader in conducting research and providing education in the arts and sciences, engineering, law, medicine, business, dentistry, education, nursing, the cinematic and performing arts, music and studio arts, public administration, social work, and professional studies, among other areas.

About NYU Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts and science campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university. NYU Abu Dhabi has integrated a highly-selective liberal arts, engineering and science curriculum with a world center for advanced research and scholarship enabling its students to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world and advance cooperation and progress on humanity's shared challenges. NYU Abu Dhabi's high-achieving students have come from 115 nations and speak over 115 languages. Together, NYU's campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai form the backbone of a unique global university, giving faculty and students opportunities to experience varied learning environments and immersion in other cultures at one or more of the numerous study-abroad sites NYU maintains on six continents.

New York University

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