As the brain develops, each neuron must find its way to precisely the right spot to weave the intricate network of links the brain needs to function. Like the wiring in a computer, a few misplaced connections can throw off functioning for an entire segment of the brain.
A new study by researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine reveals how some nerve cells, called interneurons, navigate during the development of the cerebral cortex. Mutations in a key gene behind this navigation system underlie a rare neurological disorder called Joubert syndrome; a condition linked with autism spectrum disorders and brain structure malformations.
The study was published online on Nov. 12, 2012 by the journal Developmental Cell.
"We were trying to understand how neurons get to the right place at the right time during brain development," said senior study author Eva Anton, PhD, a professor in the UNC Neuroscience Center and the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology at the UNC School of Medicine.
To do that, the UNC researchers and their collaborator, Dr. Tamara Caspary, at Emory University tracked brain development in mice with and without a gene called Arl13b. They found that the gene, when functioning normally, allows interneurons to use an appendage called the primary cilium as a sensor.
These appendages are found on many types of cells, but scientists did not previously know what they were doing on developing neurons.