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  Study: Scientists Gain Understanding of Key Mechanisms of White Matter Regeneration
March 5, 2010

Nature Neuroscience findings indicate a key early step in the regeneration of white matter involving functional communication between cells

— Scientists at Children’s National Medical Center continue to make progress in understanding the mechanics of a key brain developmental process: growth and repair of white matter, known as myelination. White matter serves as the primary messaging “network” that conducts signals between gray matter areas. Without it, the brain does not function properly.

In this most recent study, published in the March 2010 edition of Nature Neuroscience, the team at the Center for Neuroscience Research demonstrated a functional contact between the axons of demyelinated neurons and NG2+ oligodendrocyte progenitors, or brain cells that help to regenerate myelin. The contact created via these functional synapses establishes a direct communication link that plays a key role in the early stages of myelin growth and repair.

Myelination, or growth of white matter, in humans begins in utero at around 5 months of gestation and continues throughout the first three years of life. Remyelination is a natural attempt by the brain to repair damage of the white matter. Though the brain can make some repairs through this process, it cannot completely repair itself. Myelination can be impaired for a number of reasons, most commonly intrauterine infection, reduced or interrupted blood flow (which carries oxygen and nutrients) to the forming infant brain, or perinatal injury. These conditions affect up to 30 percent of preterm babies, many with severe motor and cognitive deficits, such as in patients affected by cerebral palsy.

“Understanding myelination and remyelination in increasingly greater detail brings us closer to learning how we might influence these processes,” said Vittorio Gallo, PhD, lead author of the study and director of the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National. “Through this understanding, we may one day learn how to stimulate more cells to enter this regeneration process, and perhaps assist both children and adults with disorders or traumatic brain injuries that leave white matter damaged or degenerated to more fully recover.”

Scientists were able to identify the importance of this process in part because these synapses are only formed between cells that begin the regenerative processes linked to white matter repair. After the neuron-oligodendrocyte progenitor synaptic contact has been established, this connection is terminated before myelination is completed, which also indicates its primary function in the initiation of myelination and remyelination.

Myelination, white matter growth and repair, and the study of complex mechanisms of pre-natal brain development are a key focus of the scientists in the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National. Children’s National also offers the White Matter Diseases Program, one of the largest clinical programs in the country for treating children with disorders that cause the brain’s white matter to degenerate. This latest study builds on previous research published in 2007, also in Nature Neuroscience.

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About Children’s National Medical Center
Children's National Medical Center, located in Washington, DC, is a proven leader in the development of innovative new treatments for childhood illness and injury. Children’s National has been serving the nation's children for more than 135 years. Children’s National is ranked among the best pediatric hospitals in America by U.S.News & World Report and the Leapfrog Group.For more information, visit Children’s Research Institute, the academic arm of Children’s National Medical Center, encompasses the translational, clinical, and community research efforts of the institution. Learn more about our research programs at