Chances are you’ve never heard of the zebrafish, a freshwater fish no bigger than your finger. However, this tiny tropical creature is at the center of important research into motor neuron disease (MND), also known as ALS. A new study from Macquarie University in Australia has used a model of the cellular behavior of zebrafish with MND to better understand how the disease spreads in humans, and they hope this information will lead to new developments, such as improved treatments.

By studying tiny zebrafish with MND, Macquarie scientists were able to physically see how the disease attacked and killed motor neurons. Although scientists understand how MND eventually leads to a patient's death, until now, they weren't sure how the disease spread to other parts of the body. The ability to see this process is important in understanding and treating the disease.

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"Our approach is unique – and especially exciting for MND – as we are able, for the first time, to target only a single cell that we know is expressing the MND protein (fluorescently labelled) and then follow it up with single-cell resolution microscopy,” explained lead researcher Marco Morsh in a recent report on Medical Xpress. “Together, this could allow us to decipher, in great detail, the 'route' of these proteins after their host has died."

For the study, now published online in the Journal of Visualized Experiments, scientists used a new observation technique that allowed them to stress or kill single individual cells without damaging surrounding healthy cells. This technique allowed them to physically see how MND travelled through the tiny bodies of zebrafish. Although the zebrafish may seem a poor model for studying a human disease, in reality it's ideal.

According to Morsh, the main cellular processes of the zebrafish are very similar to humans. In addition, MND progresses very quickly in these fish, cutting down the amount of time scientists have to wait around to see results. What’s more, these fish also have a very accessible nervous system to study and it is easy to introduce new genetic material into their genome; these factors make the creature an ideal model for studying the effects and progress of MND.

Motor neuron disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a rare condition that causes serious damage to the nervous system. According to the National Health Service, as the disease progresses, individuals will find it more difficult to complete everyday tasks such as walking or getting dressed. Eventually, the disease leads to complete loss of mobility.

Although there is no cure for the disease, recent breakthroughs in treatment of the condition have been promising. For example, MND will completely destroy an individual's ability to communicate, but researchers around the world are working on ways to allow these patients to communicate using nothing but their brain waves. Last year, researchers succeeded in creating a brain implant that transmitted patients' thoughts onto a computer screen. Although the technique still needs work, as it takes up to 20 seconds for patients to add a single letter to the computer screen, it is a major step forward in MND research.

Source: Morsch M, Radford RAW, Don EK, et al. Triggering Cell Stress and Death Using Conventional UV Laser Confocal Microscopy. JOVE . 2017

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