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Microscopic roundworm could be holding secrets of successful repair of damaged nerves

Posted April 30, 2019

Nature can provide us with a lot of inspiration when it comes to science. For example, did you know that there is a species of microscopic roundworm, called c. elegans, which are able to repair damaged nerves? Scientists observed how this tiny creature spontaneously reconnects severed nerves. Researchers from the University of Queensland say that this could one day help people with nerve injuries such as paralysis.

Neurons are difficult to repair, but some species have evolved the process to do that. Image credit: Dchordpdx via Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0)

Human ability to heal nerves is actually quite poor. Damaged nerves heal very slowly or refuse to heal at all. This is why people with injured spine cords or other nerves typically do not make a full recovery. However, some animals can heal their nerves much better than humans and the c. elegans roundworm is a good example of such ability. Scientists believe that if we could replicate the physiology of this process we could create therapies that would help people with nervous system injuries, which often cause life-long disabilities. But how does c. elegans repair its nerves?

A severed nerve cell - microscopic roundworm species C. elegans can mend severed nerve cells through a process called axonal fusion. Image credit: University of Queensland

A severed nerve cell – microscopic roundworm species C. elegans can mend severed nerve cells through a process called axonal fusion. Image credit: University of Queensland

Nerves are a bit like cables, created from rope-like structures called axons. These fibres are very intricate, which is part of the reason, why it is so difficult to reconnect them. Now scientists observed that these microscopic roundworms perform a process called axonal fusion, which is kicked off by a molecule, called EFF-1. Meanwhile the protein RAB-5 controls the level of the molecule – the less of RAB-5 is present, the more EFF-1 there is and axons fuse better. Scientists performed some experiments, manipulating levels of RAB-5 and promoting efficient neuron repair. However, replicating this process in humans is not going to be easy at all.

EFF-1 is not even present in humans, but RAB-5 is – this is probably why we don’t have that ability of the roundworm. Improving our understanding of protein regulators and neuron repair could help us find a way to repair nerve damage. Dr Rosina Giordano-Santini, one of the leaders of the research, said: “Very little is known about how these proteins are regulated, but they may function in a similar way to EFF-1. This could ultimately deliver a future where we have the ability to promote the fusion of damaged nerves in humans to restore their function”.

There is a long way ahead still. However, if we are going to find a way to repair nerve damage, it is going to be through looking at nature.  We may not have the nerve repairing ability, but we do have intelligence to copy it from someone who does. It may take years or even decades, but eventually it should be possible.


Source: University of Queensland

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