Stem Cell Scientists Measure Communication between Stem Cell-Derived Motor Neurons and Muscle Cells

Findings may Help Shed Light on Neurodegenerative Diseases in which Communication between Motor Neurons and Muscle Cells is Failing

In an effort to identify the underlying causes of neurological disorders that impair motor functions such as walking and breathing, UCLA researchers have developed a novel system to measure the communication between stem cell-derived motor neurons and muscle cells in a Petri dish.

The study provides an important proof of principle that functional motor circuits can be created outside of the body using stem cell-derived neurons and muscle cells, and that the level of communication, or synaptic activity, between the cells could be accurately measured by stimulating motor neurons with an electrode and then measuring the transfer of electrical activity into the muscle cells to which the motor neurons are connected.

When motor neurons are stimulated, they release neurotransmitters that depolarize the membranes of muscle cells, allowing the entry of calcium and other ions that cause them to contract. By measuring the strength of this activity, one can get a good estimation of the overall health of motor neurons. That estimation could shed light on a variety of neurodegenerative diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in which the communication between motor neurons and muscle cells is thought to unravel, said study senior author Bennett G. Novitch, an assistant professor of neurobiology and a scientist with the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA.

The findings of the study appear May 4, 2012 in PLoS ONE, a peer-reviewed journal of the Public Library of Science.