A connection between the nervous system and the vascular system has been discovered by a team of scientists.
The connection could be a good starting point for the development of therapies for neurodegenerative diseases.
Dr. Frederic Charron, researcher at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montreal (IRCM), and his team, showed for the first time that a key molecule of the vascular system directs axons during the formation of neural circuits.
"To properly form neural circuits, developing axons (long extensions of neurons that make the nerves) need molecules to guide them towards their target, in the same way that road signs guide us when we drive," Pierre Fabre, doctoral student in Charron's team and first co-author of the article, said.
"One of the key molecules of the vascular system is the vascular endothelial growth factor, better known as VEGF. We discovered that VEGF is able to attract nervous system axons.
"More specifically, we identified Flk-1 as the receptor responsible for this effect, making it a prime target for the development of therapies to re-grow axons after lesions of the central nervous system or neurodegenerative diseases," he stated.
This scientific breakthrough was possible due to an innovative technique developed by Charron's laboratory a few years ago. The system uses a microscopic device to control and observe, in real time, the axon's behaviour in response to guidance molecules.
This technique allowed the researchers to follow the axon's trajectory and revealed VEGF's role in directing axons.
"This research could have an important long-term impact in the field of spinal cord repair, as the results will help us better understand the development of the spinal cord," Charron, Director of the IRCM's Molecular Biology of Neural Development research unit, said.
"The more we learn about the molecules needed to appropriately guide axons, the more it will become possible to develop a therapy to treat spinal cord injuries," he added.
The discovery will be published by Neuron, a scientific journal of the Cell Press group.