For the first time, ALS researchers have reprogrammed a neuron from one type into another and have done so in a living organism. The finding will help scientists better understand how to control neuronal development and may one day help to treat diseases in which neurons die, including ALS.
The study, published in the journal Nature Cell Biology, and supported by The ALS Association and funded through the Milton Safenowitz Post-Doctoral Fellowship program, involved using newborn mice. The study’s researchers used two different techniques to convert one type of cortex, or brain, neuron into a second type. The second type, called corticofugal projection neurons, is significant for ALS, as they include corticospinal motor neurons that die in the disease.
“This discovery tells us again that the brain is a somehow flexible system and gives us more evidence that reprogramming neurons to take on new identities and, perhaps, that new functions are possible,” said Lucie Bruijn, Ph.D., Chief Scientist for The Association. “For those working to treat neurodegenerative diseases, that is reassuring.”
The newly converted projection neurons were able to make connections with other neurons characteristic of their new identity, rather than their original identity. Those connections are vital to proper neuronal function. The conversion was performed shortly after the mice were born. Further experiments will be needed to determine if and how it is possible to perform such a conversion later in life.
The study’s researchers were Caroline Rouaux, Ph.D. and Paola Arlotta, Ph.D., of the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Dr. Arlotta is an Associate Professor at Harvard University and a New York Stem Cell Foundation-Robertson Investigator. Dr. Rouaux received The Milton-Safenowitz Post-Doctoral fellowship from The ALS Association when in Arlotta’s laboratory in 2007 and 2008 and has recently become an Assistant Professor at National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) in Strasbourg, France, where she continues her work in ALS research together with other leaders in the field.
Read our press release about this study.