According to established scientific beliefs, the body cannot naturally repair damaged neurons in the brain and spinal cord. But what if it had some help?
Dr. Samantha Butler , Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at USC, is currently researching how stem cell motor neurons can be used to regenerate damaged neural circuitry.
“This is where one glaring problem arises,” Butler said. “An embryo is very small. Me, I’m very large. The distances an axon would have to grow has gone from millimeters to feet, potentially feet, inches for sure.”
Depending on how much the neural circuitry has degenerated, it could take months or years to re-grow the circuitry, Butler said.
Butler is currently researching how motor neurons can be manipulated so that their axons grow faster. This will then be applied to neurodegenerative mouse models to see if there is any
In past research, Butler studied the effects of bone morphogenic protein (BMP) on axonal growth.
“When we increased the activity [of BMP by increasing its concentration] the cell
would put out an axon but it would just sort of sit there,” Butler said. “Decreasing the activity is
more interesting: the axon grew faster.”
Butler can currently get axons to grow 25 percent faster, which would definitely help shave off some of the time it takes to regenerate damaged neural circuitry.
To innervate a leg would take many months and possibility years to re-grow the damaged
neural circuit. In a two-year extreme example, 25 percent faster would mean six fewer months
Butler hopes that her research will help improve neurodegenerative diseases related to the
spinal cord such as spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS),
better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“So I’m very excited about this possibility,” Butler said. “The distances to recover circuitry are very daunting particularly out into the periphery to recover movements…and this is a way of maybe ameliorating that concern.”