Axonal fusion is a process that offers promise as a potential treatment for people with nerve injuries, which can cause life-long disabilities.
Some of the most significant advances in brain research come from left field. You would probably never guess that a roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) with just 302 neurons would contribute to fundamental research about neurological disorders in humans, but it has played a vital role.
The ability to reconnect nerve cells following an injury is a huge goal in science. Humans cannot do this spontaneously and it's why damage to the spinal cord is usually permanent. But this ability does exist in nature: a number of invertebrate species, like the microscopic roundworm C. elegans, are able to re-fuse and restore the function of neurons that have been severed.
Professor Massimo Hilliard and his team are studying this amazing capability in C. elegans in the hope of one day being able to treat nerve injuries, such as paralysis, in people. They have uncovered key information on how this process is regulated.
Neurons communicate using lengthy, cable-like structures called axons. In 2015, Professor Hilliard's team discovered the ability of C. elegans to carry out a process called axonal fusion, where two halves of a cut axon reconnect.
To undergo fusion, the axon still attached to the cell must first regrow, then position itself in close proximity to its separated axonal fragment. Once the two parts of the axon have reconnected, they fuse their membranes to form a cohesive whole with an outer membrane and the inner material of the cell.
It’s a process that offers promise as a potential treatment for people with nerve injuries, which can cause life-long disabilities.