Most other cells come in spherical blob-like shapes with a central nucleus. But neurons come in a variety of wild and spiky forms, with branching projections sprouting out of their tiny cell bodies in all directions.
Unlike their blobby brethren, neurons have distinct regions. There's the cell body, home to the nucleus. Then come the axons and dendrites, the signal-carrying and signal-receiving parts of the neuron that send long, spindly arms to form connections, called synapses, with other neurons.
Research - Investigators - Harvard - Medical - School
Now research led by investigators at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University's HMS-FAS Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology suggests that parts of the neuron are far more complex than once thought.
The team's findings, described Jan. 17 in Nature, add yet another twist in the ever-evolving understanding of the nerve cells that make up our brains.
Brain - Development - Neuron - Projections - Distances
During brain development, a neuron's projections extend great distances -- sometimes many thousands of cell body widths from their nucleus -- to form the synaptic connections so critical for brain function.
Could being so far from the cell's command center confer some degree of independence to the nerve cell's signaling tentacles? Could a neuron's axon be more than a message dispatcher, carrying nerve impulses from one cell to the next? Could axons, in fact, be making decisions on their own?
Questions - Team - Surprises
These are the very questions the team has been probing, and they are already uncovering some surprises.
"We are not the first to think that there has to be some autonomy," said Jeffrey Macklis, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and the Max and Anne Wien Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University. "It would take several hours for a growth cone to signal back to its nucleus for a 'next command,' and it has been clear from observing axon growth in the lab that growth cones...
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