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It is both humbling and amazing that someday successful treatments for autism, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia may be owed to a millimeter-long worm called Caenorhabditis elegans, often referred to by its nickname, C. elegans.
Despite its minuscule size, C. elegans is a complex animal that eats, mates, moves and processes environmental cues. Humans have many of the same genes as these tiny transparent worms made of 969 cells – 302 of which are neurons – so finding genetic causes for neuron reactions in these worms may be applicable to ourselves.
One has to wonder if researchers played a recording of The Mills Brothers' famous "Glow Worm" song in the background as they observed their luminescent study participants.
The researchers engineered a strain of C. elegans with neurons near the head that glowed whenever they picked up the smell of food. When pulses of appealing or repulsive food odors were injected into the worms’ arena, scientists monitored their glowing reactions. Generally, the worms behaved as you might expect, moving toward the yummy worm odors and away from the nasty ones. However, not all the worms followed this pattern all the time.
"We were able to show that the sensory neurons responded to the odors similarly in all the animals, but their behavioral responses differed significantly," said researcher Dr. Dirk Albrecht, Ph.D. "These animals are genetically identical, and they were raised together in the same environment, so where do their different choices come from?"
The researchers were also able to trace neuron signaling through interneurons. Interneurons are pathways that link external sensors to the rest of the worm’s “brain” and send signals to muscle cells, adjusting their movements based on the odor cues. Studying these signals may prove helpful since many brain disorders in humans are thought to develop when neural networks malfunction either by overreacting to a normal stimulus, or by failing to respond to them.
Eventually, experimental drugs designed to regulate the action of neuron networks or nerve cells could be initially tested on the unsuspecting C. elegans. The compounds would be infused into the worm arena along with other stimuli. Scientists would then record and analyze the reaction of the worms’ nervous systems.
"The basis of our work is to combine biomedical engineering and neuroscience to answer some of these fundamental questions and hopefully gain insight that would be beneficial for understanding and eventually treating human disorders," Albrecht concluded.
Source: Medical News Today
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