Scientists identify two genes involved in establishing neuronal circuits required for breathing

Published on November 30, 2012 at 12:05 PM · No Comments

Scientists at NYU Langone Medical Center have identified two genes involved in establishing the neuronal circuits required for breathing. They report their findings in a study published in the December issue of Nature Neuroscience. The discovery, featured on the journal's cover, could help advance treatments for spinal cord injuries and neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which gradually kill neurons that control the movement of muscles needed to breathe, move, and eat.

The study identifies a molecular code that distinguishes a group of muscle-controlling nerve cells collectively known as the phrenic motor column (PMC). These cells lie about halfway up the back of the neck, just above the fourth cervical vertebra, and are "probably the most important motor neurons in your body," says Jeremy Dasen, PhD, assistant professor of physiology and neuroscience and a member of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who led the three-year study with Polyxeni Philippidou, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow.

Harming the part of the spinal cord where the PMC resides can instantly shut down breathing. But relatively little is known about what distinguishes PMC neurons from neighboring neurons, and how PMC neurons develop and wire themselves to the diaphragm in the fetus.

The PMC cells relay a constant flow of electrochemical signals down their bundled axons and onto the diaphragm muscles, allowing the lungs to expand and relax in the natural rhythm of breathing. "We now have a set of molecular markers that distinguish those cells from other populations of motor neurons, so that we can study them in detail and look for ways to selectively enhance their survival," Dr. Dasen says. Degeneration of PMC neurons is the primary cause of death in patients with ALS and spinal cord injuries.

To find out what distinguishes PMC neurons from their spinal neighbors in mice, Dr. Philippidou injected a retrograde fluorescent tracer into the phrenic nerve, which wires the PMC to the diaphragm, and then looked for the spinal neurons that lit up as the tracer worked its way back to the PMC. He used transgenic mice that express green fluorescent protein (GFP) in motor neurons and their axons in order to see the phrenic nerve. After noting the characteristic gene expression pattern of these PMC neurons, Dr. Philippidou began to determine their specific roles. Ultimately, a complicated strain of transgenic mice, based partly on mice supplied by collaborator Lucie Jeannotte, PhD, at the University of Laval in Quebec, revealed two genes, Hoxa5 and Hoxc5, as the prime controllers of proper PMC development. Hox genes (39 are expressed in humans) are well known as master gene regulators of animal development.

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