University of Queensland
Research Field: Neuroscience
The neurons in our nervous system communicate via electrical signals sent via axons, which are the longest and most susceptible compartment of a neuron. The integrity of these circuits is essential for the preservation of correct neuronal function. A failure of maintenance causes axonal degeneration, which is a key early pathological hallmark of neuronal injury, and of several neurodegenerative conditions, including motor neuron disease, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Axonal degeneration is an active process, which precedes the death of the neuronal cell body and is a critical determinant of the development and progression of neurodegenerative disorders.
However, a full understanding of the molecular mechanisms and genetic causes of axonal degeneration is still lacking. Recently, using the nematode C. elegans as a model system, Dr Coakley has discovered three genes with previously unknown functions in protecting axons from degeneration. This has revealed that these molecules function in the tissue surrounding the axon where they exert a protective effect against axonal degeneration. This research provides original and important insights into the cellular and molecular mechanisms protecting neurons, with the potential to be translated into knowledge of how damage due to injury or disease can be prevented or delayed.