Since the early 2000s, neuroscientists and bioengineers have made major strides in motor prosthetics, developing neutrally controlled devices that can compensate for lost motor abilities. Most commonly, patients receiving these prostheses have lost either their entire limb or functionality of it due to localized injury or disease. With the work of such scientists as Leigh R. Hochberg of Brown University and Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh, controlling mechanical extensions of the body using thought alone has become a real possibility. Yet, treating spinal injuries, which often result in paralysis, remains an incredibly challenging task, particularly because human nerve cells do not fully regenerate.
Incredibly exciting research from the lab of Melissa M. Rolls, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State University, has unearthed a gene in fruit flies that may revolutionize rehabilitation and therapy for related neurological disorders. In their publication in Cell Reports from this past week, the team led by Rolls identify the spastin gene as necessary for axon regeneration. Fruit flies with even one mutated copy of the gene could not regenerate severed axons, unlike those with two functional copies. Spastin is a microtubule-remodeling protein that helps build the “highways” upon which the raw materials for axon growth are transported from the soma.
In humans, spastin is especially pertinent in hereditary spastic paralysis (HSP), a disease involving the mutation of the SPG4 gene, which encodes the protein. The work by this team of researchers from Penn State and Duke University suggests a new vantage point from which to view and treat patients who have suffered from nerve damage. More information about this groundbreaking study can be found here. Additional details about the experiments are included in the publication from Cell Reports.