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From simple beginnings: Spinal nerve connections develop using simple rules

A tadpole against a background showing a fragment of the computer generated network which can produce its swimming movements

A tadpole against a background showing a fragment of the computer generated network which can produce its swimming movements Professor Alan Roberts

Press release issued: 8 January 2014

Repairing spinal injuries with stem cells may be a step closer thanks to scientists at the Universities of Bristol and Plymouth. A new study, published today in the Journal of Neuroscience, employed novel techniques to show that spinal nerve cell networks may develop using much simpler rules than expected.

In the first study of its kind, the scientists studied the anatomy and physiology of young frog tadpoles and, from the results, built the first complete reconstruction of a nerve cell network that can produce complex behaviour in a whole vertebrate organism.

They observed imprecise connections between nerve cell fibres depending on where they were located in the brain and spinal cord, and built these into their computer model of nerve growth.  It contained nearly 100,000 connections and can make a model of the tadpole nervous system 'swim' when stimulated.

The findings challenge the generally accepted idea that nerve cell connections in developing embryonic animals are only made using highly specific recognition processes like those used when nerve cells in the eye find the correct part of the brain.

Lead researcher Professor Alan Roberts from Bristol's School of Biological Sciences said: "Adult animal nervous systems are highly complex with billions of connections, however, since humans evolved from simple vertebrates like fish and frogs our results imply that early in development, simple rules may lay out the first functional nerve cell networks in our brains.

"The next step is to investigate how imprecise the connections can be while still allowing the correct behaviour to be displayed and to understand how the networks controlling other aspects of tadpole behaviour are constructed.”

The research was funded by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council).

Paper

'Building the early nervous system: can simple rules control development of a pioneer vertebrate network generating behavior?' by Alan Roberts, Deborah Conte, Mike Hull, Robert Merrison-Hort, Abul Kalam al Azad, Edgar Buhl, Roman Borisyuk and Stephen R.Soffe in the Journal of Neuroscience

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £467M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.