A gene that helps regulate how well nerves of the central nervous system are insulated has been found by researchers. Healthy insulation is vital for the speedy propagation of nerve cell signals.
The researchers from Washington University’s school of medicine in St Louis focused on a gene called Gpr56 which manufactures a protein of the same name.
The finding, in zebrafish and mice, may have implications for human diseases like multiple sclerosis in which this insulation is lost.
The nerve cells send electrical signals along lengthy projections called axons. These signals travel much faster when the axon is wrapped in myelin, an insulating layer of fats and proteins. In the central nervous system, the cells responsible for insulating axons are called oligodendrocytes.
While the previous work indicated that this gene was likely to be involved in central nervous system development but its specific roles were unclear, the new study found that without Gpr56, the cells responsible for applying the insulation failed to reproduce themselves sufficiently.
“We first saw this defect in the developing zebrafish embryo,” said first author Sarah D. Ackerman, a graduate student in Monk’s lab. “But it’s not simply a temporary defect that only results in delayed myelination. When I looked at fish that were six months old, I still saw this problem of undermyelinated axons.”
“These cells actually matured too early instead of continuing to replicate as they should have. Consequently, in adulthood, there were not enough mature cells, leaving many axons without insulation,” said study’s senior author Kelly R. Monk, assistant professor of developmental biology.
Gpr56 belongs to a large class of cell receptors that are common targets for many commercially available drugs, making the protein attractive for further research.
The investigators have also pointed out that its possible relevance in treating diseases associated with a lack of myelin, with particular interest in multiple sclerosis.
The study appeared in the journal Nature Communications.