Scientists have discovered a molecule that could be the key to understanding the cause of neurodegenerative diseases such as motor neurone disease (MND).
Lead researcher Professor Patricia Salinas, from University College London along with Dr Simon Hughes, from King's College London has identified a signalling molecule called Wnt3 that plays a crucial role in creating the connections, or synapses, between nerves and the muscles they control.
"For decades we have been studying how nerves communicate with their target muscles and we know that in diseases like MND the sites of contact between nerves and muscles become weak," said Salinas.
The new find offers a new possibility for developing drugs to treat MND and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Wnt3 works along with another molecule called Agrin, which coordinates construction of the synapse and organises the elements that make up the connection.
The team looked at the Wnt signals in chickens, mice and in cells it was shown to enhance the effectiveness of Agrin.
"Without properly formed synapses the muscle cannot receive the nerve signal that tells it to contract and hence we see the muscle weakness that is classic in MND," said Salinas.
"If we can build up a thorough picture to show how synapses are normally formed between nerves and muscles we can start to look for any elements that aren't working properly in people with MND.
"This might also lead to strategies for nerve repair after an injury.
"Now that we understand the role Wnt plays we can begin to explore any role it plays in MND and whether it could be a good target for treating this type of neurodegenerative disease," she added.
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.