Stanford researchers identify nerve-stabilizing protein

Stanford researchers have identified an elastic-like protein matrix called spectrin that increases the stability of nerves that sense touch.

According to a study published in “Nature Cell Biology” on Feb. 23, spectrin, a protein that allows the bending of red blood cells, also helps nerves to better withstand natural wear-and-tear due to movement at joints and among tissues.

Primary researcher Michael Krieg worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the labs of both Miriam Goodman, associate professor of molecular and cellular physiology, and Alex Dunn, assistant professor of chemical engineering. Drawing on the faculty members’ specializations in touch-sensing neurons and the physical properties of cells (respectively), Krieg combined his experiences to study the physical properties of nerves that sense touch.

By studying nerve resilience in roundworms, Krieg found that those that lacked the protein spectrin had buckling nerves that broke over time. Worms with mutations in spectrin were less likely to react when touched, and the researchers’ studies suggested that mutations in spectrin may be the cause of movement disorders in people as well.

In general, the research resulted in two main findings–first, that spectrin forms an elastic mesh beneath the surface of nerve cells that enables bending and flexing without preventing signals from being sent and second, that the spectrin matrix may assist in transmitting signals in touch-sensing nerves.

After further experimentation, Krieg also demonstrated that the spectrin matrix helps to maintain the tension in nerves that allows them to remain stable. Using a tool developed by Dunn and Goodman through funding from Stanford Bio-X, Krieg was able to measure the force within cells at an extremely precise level.

In the future, the researchers hope to apply their work to nerve types beyond those that sense touch and want to determine the role of spectrin in transmitting touch itself. They also hope to apply the findings to animals besides worms, and in particular to human beings.

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