Researchers Discover Previously Unknown Second Pathway for Neurons to Regenerate

Melissa Rolls, Ph.D., neuron regeneration expert
Melissa Rolls, Ph.D.

2006 NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee Melissa Rolls, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Director, Center for Cellular Dynamics at Penn State University, co-authored a study showing that dendrites, the component of nerve cells that receive information from the brain, have the ability to regenerate after injury. The findings of this potentially life-saving research will be published January 30th in the journal Cell Reports.

Experts have known that injured neurons repair damage through the regeneration of axons, the part of a neuron that sends information to other cells. "For example, if you break your arm and the bone slices some axons, you may lose feeling or movement in part of your hand. Over time you get this feeling back as the axon regenerates,” says Dr. Rolls. This new research was done on fruit flies using what Dr. Rolls calls a “radical approach,” cutting off all of the dendrites in neuron cells.

Researchers thought that by taking such extreme measures, the flies may die without their brain cells being able to receive information. “We were amazed to find that the cells don’t die. Instead, they regrow the dendrites completely and much more quickly than they regrow axons. Within a few hours they'll start regrowing dendrites, and after a couple of days they have almost their entire arbor. It's very exciting—these cells are extremely robust,” she says.

As for humans, down the road this could offer significant possibilities for treatment of brain injuries and disorders. An example would be a patient who suffers a stroke, where a region of the brain suffers blood loss, dendrites on brain cells are damaged and can be repaired only if blood loss is very brief. However, if scientists learn how dendrites regenerate, they may be able to promote this process and, in turn, save lives.

"We've provided some cause for hope when it comes to neuron damage," Dr. Rolls says. "This is optimistic work we are doing. It's just great to know there is this whole other pathway for survival that no one has even looked into before."

Read more about this research from the Penn State University press release.