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Office of Neuroscience Research > WUSTL Neuroscience News > Surprising culprit in nerve cell damage identified

Surprising culprit in nerve cell damage identified



 From the WUSTL Newsroom...

In many neurodegenerative conditions — Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and peripheral neuropathy among them — an early defect is the loss of axons, the wiring of the nervous system. When axons are lost, nerve cells can’t communicate as they should, and nervous system function is impaired. In peripheral neuropathy in particular, and perhaps other diseases, sick axons trigger a self-destruct program.

In new research, scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have implicated a specific molecule in the self-destruction of axons. Understanding just how that damage occurs may help researchers find a way to halt it.

The study is published March 22 in the journal Neuron.

“Axons break down in a lot of neurodegenerative diseases,” said senior author Jeffrey D. Milbrandt, MD, PhD, the James S. McDonnell Professor and head of the Department of Genetics. “Despite the fact these diseases have different causes, they are all likely rooted in the same pathway that triggers axon degeneration. If we could find a way to block the pathway, it could be beneficial for many different kinds of patients.”

Since the molecular pathway that leads to loss of axons appears to do more harm than good, it’s not clear what role this self-destruct mechanism plays in normal life. But scientists suspect that if the pathway that destroys axons could be paused or halted, it would slow or prevent the gradual loss of nervous system function and the debilitating symptoms that result. One such condition, peripheral neuropathy, affects about 20 million people in the United States. It often develops following chemotherapy or from nerve damage associated with diabetes, and can cause persistent pain, burning, stinging, itching, numbness and muscle weakness.

“Peripheral neuropathy is by far the most common neurodegenerative disease,” said co-author Aaron DiAntonio, MD, PhD, the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor of Developmental Biology. “Patients don’t die from it, but it has a huge impact on quality of life.”

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