A Dalhousie University professor and an international team of researchers have discovered what makes us kick.
Dr. Rob Brownstone, along with colleagues in New York and Scotland, discovered a group of nerve cells that are critical to regulating how much force muscles use when performing movements.
“We knew that they had to be there,” Dr. Brownstone said Friday, roughly a week after Neuron, the world’s leading neuroscience journal, published the findings.
“But we couldn’t pinpoint them and we couldn’t say exactly what their role was in a behaving animal.”
The researchers located a group of cells that regulate how much force is used by motor neurons, nerve cells in the spinal cord that make muscles contract. The team used genetic techniques to locate and deactivate these new-found “modulatory” cells in mice.
“When we did that, that’s when we found that the animals couldn’t contract their muscles in their legs as much as they needed to swim properly,” Dr. Brownstone said.
“This is a fundamental discovery about how the spinal cord works to produce movement.”
Further on down the line, this discovery could lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of Lou Gehrig’s disease, spinal cord injuries and other conditions, Dr. Brownstone said.
Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS, is a terminal condition caused by the degeneration of the motor neurons. As the condition progresses, the patient’s muscles weaken until they eventually lose control of voluntary movements. Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has a form of ALS.
With further research, this discovery could one day allow ALS patients to reprogram their nervous system and boost their muscle strength, Dr. Brownstone said.
People with spinal cord injuries could also benefit once researchers learn how to activate the newly discovered cell group.
“What we know is that by training people with spinal cord injury . . . you can improve their motor function,” Dr. Brownstone said, explaining that a boost from these cells could mean patients have the strength to push themselves further.
But given the uncertain nature of scientific progress, patients could have to wait five to 10 years before research leads to treatment breakthroughs, he said.
“We don’t have a lot of major ‘eureka’ moments, but we do have some minor ‘eureka’ moments,” Dr. Brownstone said.
“You never know when those are going to come.”Dr. Brownstone’s work has been leading up to this discovery since the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the current team began assembling.
Along with Dr. Brownstone, the team included researchers at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and Columbia University in New York, according to a Dalhousie news release.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Project A.L.S., an American foundation, supported their work.
‘This is a fundamental discovery about how the spinal cord works to produce movement.’
Dr. Rob BrownstoneDalhousie University professor
By GEOFF DAVIES