A recently discovered molecule is capable of making brain cells resistant to programmed cell death (apoptosis). The discovery was made by researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
The study is the first to find a mammalian microRNA capable of stopping neuronal apoptosis.
This molecule, a tiny strand of nucleotides called microRNA-29 or miR-29, has already been shown to be in short supply in certain neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease and Huntington's disease. Thus, the discovery could herald a new treatment to prompt brain cells to survive in the wake of neurodegeneration or acute injury like stroke.
"There is the real possibility that this molecule could be used to block the cascade of events known as apoptosis that eventually causes brain cells to break down and die," said senior study author Mohanish Deshmukh, associate professor of cell and developmental biology.
Remarkably, a large number of the neurons we are born with end up dying during the normal development of our bodies. Our nerve cells must span great distances to ultimately innervate our limbs, muscles and vital organs.
Because not all nerve cells manage to reach their target tissues, the body overcompensates by sending out twice as many neurons as required. The first ones to reach their target get the prize, a cocktail of factors needed for them to survive, while the ones left behind die off. Once that brutal developmental phase is over, the remaining neurons become impervious to apoptosis and live long term.
The study has been published in the journal Genes and Development.