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Most important actors in the growth process of neurons identified

Defects in the growth process of our neurons often underlie brain or nerve diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease or multiple sclerosis. Scientists from the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) connected to the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, led by Bassem Hassan, have achieved a major step in unraveling the growth process of axons, the offshoots of neurons. They have identified the JNK, Wnt and FGF signaling cascades as the most important actors and have also discovered their respective roles. Their research shows that the growth of axons and the activity of neurons are completely independent of each other. This new finding can lead to better understanding of a variety of nerve diseases.

A complex network A human being has approximately 100 billion neurons, the body's information and signal processors. The great majority of them are found in the central nervous system. The brain contains complex networks of neurons that regulate a large number of bodily functions. Because the brain and the nervous system are a delicate system, something can sometimes go seriously wrong and a brain or nerve disease appears - for example, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Multiple Sclerosis (MS). In the quest for possible cures for these diseases, it is important that we understand how connections are established between neurons.

Neurons have a number of long thin offshoots - called axons - that conduct electrical impulses. These primary elements of information transfer in the nervous system can sometimes be more than a meter long. The axon's orientation as it grows is also of great importance in forming the right connection. As in-coming stimuli are converted into signals that determine the direction and speed of an axon's growth, three things can happen: the axon can grow further, pull back, or change direction. Therefore, axon growth is a process that consists of several components: growth of the axon
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Source:Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)


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