Mutations in specific genes that destroy motor neurons and cause the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) also attack sensory neurons, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) researchers suggest, in Scientific Reports.

Studying sensory neurons could provide new mechanistic insights to prevent, slow, or even reverse ALS, they add.

In their study, VTCRI scientists examined sensory neurons in cell cultures and in mice with ALS-causing mutant genes. They found that sensory neurons’ axons exhibit similar pathological changes found in motor neurons afflicted with ALS, notes a media release from Virginia Tech.

“Similar to motor neurons, ALS-inducing factors first affect the ending of sensory neurons axons, the site where they form synapses with other cells, and then the rest of the axon falls apart,” says Gregorio Valdez, an associate professor with the VTCRI and a faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, in the release.

“We’re closer to understanding where the problem starts within a given cell, and especially neurons, in ALS,” adds Valdez, the senior and corresponding author of the study. “However, we need to understand the reason such cells succumb to ALS-inducing factors. It is also important to develop and optimize assays to test molecules with the potential of preventing neurons from giving in to ALS-inducing factors. Our findings show that sensory neurons could serve both purposes.”

In practice, motor neurons and sensory neurons work together. Sensory neurons constantly relay information, directly and indirectly, to motor neurons. This information could be about temperature, touch and the contractile status of skeletal muscles, the release continues.

“In essence, we now have a high-content and high-throughput assay using sensory neurons in a dish to look for molecules that could prevent ALS-related pathology,” Valdez states.

[Source(s): Virginia Tech, Science Daily]