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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – As the human body fine-tunes its neurological wiring, nerve cells often must fix a faulty connection by amputating an axon — the “business end” of the neuron that sends electrical impulses to tissues or other neurons. It is a dance with death, however, because the molecular poison the neuron deploys to sever an axon could, if uncontained, kill the entire cell.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine have uncovered some surprising insights about the process of axon amputation, or “pruning,” in a study published May 21 in the journal Nature Communications. Axon pruning has mystified scientists curious to know how a neuron can unleash a self -destruct mechanism within its axon, but keep it from spreading to the rest of the cell. The researchers’ findings could offer clues about the processes underlying some neurological disorders.
"Aberrant axon pruning is thought to underlie some of the causes for neurodevelopmental disorders, such as schizophrenia and autism," said Mohanish Deshmukh, PhD, professor of cell biology and physiology at UNC and the study’s senior author. "This study sheds light on some of the mechanisms by which neurons are able to regulate axon pruning."
Caption: Neurons can be cultured in one compartment of a microfluidic chamber (right side) and extend their axons through very small grooves into a separate compartment (left side). Using this technology, study co-author Corey L. Cusack and colleagues were able to separate and study the distinct pathways that mediate whole-cell degeneration versus axon-specific degeneration in neurons.
Credit: Deshmukh Lab, UNC School of Medicine