A hair strand-thin worm is providing substantial clues on how nerves regenerate, offering insight and hope to finding genes that affect nerve generation and ultimately new drugs and therapies for human neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin, with collaborators from the University of Michigan, discovered that, during surgery to sever its nerves, the 1 millimeter-long worm (called C. elegans) regenerated nerves up to 12 times faster without the use of anesthetics.
“There was this interesting phenomenon,” said Adela Ben-Yakar, assistant professor in mechanical engineering. “Without using anesthetics, the axon (which conducts electrical impulses from the neuron) regrew much faster. So we realized the anesthetics really did interfere with the regeneration process.”
She noted that the axons regrew within 60 to 90 minutes without the use of anesthetics. Previously with the use of anesthetics, axons took as long as six to 12 hours to regrow. To study nerve regeneration, the axons, which connect neurons, were severed using ultra-short laser pulses to observe what promoted their regrowth.
Researchers observed this critical occurrence as they performed breakthrough laser nanosurgery using a specially designed micro-fluidic microchip. The chip painlessly immobilizes the live worm using pressure from fluid within the chip and acts as both a tiny operating table and recovery room to examine the worm, which has been widely studied and has more in common with humans than one might think.
Their findings were published in the May issue of Nature Methods.
—Daniel J. Vargas