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Most cells have a built-in regeneration signaling program that allows them to divide and repair. But, in the cells of the central nervous system, which are called neurons, this program is ineffective. This is why accidents and illnesses affecting the brain and spinal cord can cause permanent damage. Reactivating regeneration in neurons could help them repair, but it is not easy. Certain small molecules can switch repair signaling programs back on. Unfortunately, these molecules diffuse easily through tissues, spreading around the body and making it hard to target individual damaged cells. This both hampers research into neuronal repair and makes treatments directed at healing damage to the nervous system more likely to have side-effects. It is unclear whether reactivating regeneration signaling in individual neurons is possible.
One way to address this question is to use optogenetics. This technique uses genetic engineering to fuse proteins that are light-sensitive to proteins responsible for relaying signals in the cell. When specific wavelengths of light hit the light-sensitive proteins, the fused signaling proteins switch on, leading to the activation of any proteins they control, for example, those involved in regeneration.
Wang et al. used optogenetic tools to determine if light can help repair neurons in fruit fly larvae. First, a strong laser light was used to damage an individual neuron in a fruit fly larva that had been genetically modified so that blue light would activate the regeneration program in its neurons. Then, Wang et al. illuminated the cell with dim blue light, switching on the regeneration program. Not only did this allow the neuron to repair itself, it also allowed the light to guide its regeneration. By focusing the blue light on the damaged end of the neuron, it was possible to guide the direction of the cell's growth as it regenerated.
Regeneration programs in flies and mammals involve similar signaling proteins, but blue light does not penetrate well into mammalian tissues. This means that further research into LEDs that can be implanted may be necessary before neuronal repair experiments can be performed in mammals. In any case, the ability to focus treatment on individual neurons paves the way for future work into the regeneration of the nervous system, and the combination of light and genetics could reveal more about how repair signals work.