A novel method for quantifying axon degeneration

A novel method for quantifying axon degeneration

Researchers have developed a new and improved method to judge the effectiveness of experimental therapies for neurodegeneration--the progressive loss of neurons.

"Neurons--or nerve cells--are hugely important to our daily lives," says the study lead author. "These specialized cells collect and process the large amounts of information that enter our bodies via our senses, control our muscles and organs, and form our thoughts and memories. When these cells become unhealthy, it leads to diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, ALS, glaucoma and chronic pain."

This study uses the first automated test specifically designed for measuring degeneration of sensory neurons grown in a lab.

"The variability in nerve cell lengths, densities and shapes have traditionally made it difficult to reliably analyze their health," says the lead author. "This, in turn, has generated confusion about the effectiveness of potential pharmacological or genetic treatments."

Using the new approach, which is software-assisted, the research team were able to measure nerve cell densities more accurately. As proof of principal, this new method, written as an R script called Axoquant 2.0, was used to examine the role of extracellular Ca2+ in the execution of cytoskeletal disassembly during degeneration of NGF-deprived DRG axons. 

To do this the team grew nerve cells in a lab environment, and after establishing healthy neurons researchers mimicked the conditions that cause neurodegeneration. Neuron loss was then captured using fluorescent microcopy--a process that makes the tiny cells easier to see--and analyzed using a computer algorithm.

"This procedure makes evaluating new treatment options, like drugs or gene therapies, far more accurate and trustworthy," the lead author adds.