ALS Research Group
Understanding neural networks:
Neuroscientists in Dalhousie’s Brain Repair Centre are learning how neural networks control movement - their findings have ramifications for spinal cord injury, as well as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), a fatal disease that destroys the neural networks that enable us to move, speak, swallow and breathe.
In terms of ALS, the researchers are finding there’s a lot more going on in ALS than the death of motor neurons, the specialized nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control movement. They’ve developed a new technology for screening potential ALS, based on a recent discovery that it’s just as important to protect the synapses that connect the motor neurons to the muscles as it is to protect the motor neurons themselves. Now they’re working with a Canadian-led team to use this technology to screen potential anti-ALS drugs that will protect the synapses while improving motor neurons survival.
“There is currently only one drug available for ALS patients, which can extend life by several months,” says Dr. Victor Rafuse, a leading ALS researcher and Director of the Brain Repair Centre. “Our goal is to help find ways to extend life by several years.”
Dr. Rafuse has played a key role in building one of Canada’s most comprehensive ALS and spinal cord research groups. This includes Dr. Rob Brownstone, who came to Dalhousie from Manitoba in 2000, Dr. James Fawcett, who joined Dalhousie from the University of Toronto in 2006, Dr. Ying Zhang, who came from the Salk Institute in San Diego in 2010, and Dr. Turgay Akay, who came from Columbia University in New York in 2014. Because these researchers are exploring the basic science of movement synapse function and neurodegeneration, many of their findings also apply to spinal cord injuries and other neurodegenerative disorders.
In addition, to their studies of how ALS develops and progresses, and how it could be treated, the ALS researchers are working on a simple test for detecting the disease early, when treatments could stop neural damage before motor function is lost. Their research will also shed light on what kind, if any, exercise is most appropriate, and how dietary intake can influence progression of the disease.
“There are so many unanswered questions in ALS,” Dr. Rafuse says. “We’ve assembled a strong group with synergistic expertise to find the answers. The expansion of the Maritime Brain Tissue Bank to include ALS tissues will open another door for our research.”
The same researchers are also key players in the Atlantic Mobility Action Project, a regional research collaboration that’s seeking solutions to mobility problems caused by ALS, spinal cord injuries and many other diseases and conditions.