A small group of neurons in the brain's cortex play a big role in the neurodegenerative disease that paralyzes its victims, but they've proved hard to study because they are few in number and look similar to other neurons in the cortex, the researchers said.
Of about 2 billion cells in the brain, a mere 75,000 motor neurons are affected in ALS.
Now a medical researcher at Northwestern University has isolated the neurons that die in ALS and "dressed' them in a green fluorescent jacket that makes them stand out for scientists to study, a university release reported Tuesday.
The cells take on their neon "jackets" when they are born and wear them as they age and become sick, allowing researchers to observe what goes wrong in the cells to cause their deaths, knowledge that may help in the search for effective treatments.
"We have developed the tool to investigate what makes these cells become vulnerable and sick," Northwestern neurology Professor Hande Ozdinler said. "This was not possible before."
The technique also allowed Ozdinler and colleagues to identify the motor neurons that don't die so scientists can attempt to learn what protects them.
"Now we have a model of one motor neuron population that dies and one that is resistant," Ozdinler said. "That's the perfect experiment. You can ask what does this neuron have that makes it resistant and what does the other one have that makes it vulnerable? That's what we will find out."