Australian scientists believe that they have found a new way of reconnecting neurons damaged by injuries.
The process, learnt from the worms and called axonal fusion, could hold out hopes of substantial success in regenerating the peripheral nervous system. Though brain and spinal cord damage usually results in lifelong disabilities, regeneration has thus far been a case of hit-or-miss affair.
Studying nerve injury in roundworms, researchers at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) have been able to come up with an effective regeneration process. The research takes us a step closer to understanding how to promote repair in the nervous system.
"Though damaged nerves reconnect in a number of different ways, the underlying mechanisms remain poorly understood," says Dr Brent Neumann, the postdoctoral fellow who carried out the work in the laboratory of Dr Massimo Hilliard.
The research, published in Developmental Dynamics, examines a process called axonal fusion, which has been observed in crayfish, earthworms, leeches and now in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans
It offers a fundamentally different mechanism for regeneration of axons (long structures that look like cables and conduct electrical impulses between neurons) than those traditionally proposed.
Using fluorescent imaging, the QBI study showed that axonal fusion is a highly effective way to restore neuronal connections with the target tissue.
Dr Neumann notes that transected (severed) axons can restore their trajectories by bridging just the damage site instead of regrowing their entire length beyond an injury site.
"In the worm, this process happens automatically a certain percentage of the time," Dr Hilliard explains.
"As C. elegans are highly accessible for genetic analyses, future research will focus on the cellular and molecular mechanisms regulating the process - and how to make it happen when it doesn't do so naturally.
"We do not know yet if something similar occurs in humans, but if it is not in place it doesn't mean we can't make it happen."
The research was carried out in collaboration with Professor David Hall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, and Associate Professor Adela Ben-Yakar of the University of Texas at Austin.