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Brain’s physical structure may help guide its wiring

Stiffness, softness determine if nerve cells’ axons take straight or meandering path

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11:00am, September 19, 2016
Axons

MAKING CONNECTIONS  Axons (grayish-white strands, center) that form a signal-sending pathway in the visual system grow toward their destination in an embryonic frog brain. 

In growing brains, billions of nerve cells must make trillions of precise connections. As they snake through the brain, nerve cell tendrils called axons use the brain’s stiffness to guide them on their challenging journey, a study of frog nerve cells suggests.

The results, described online September 19 in Nature Neuroscience, show that along with chemical guidance signals, the brain’s physical properties help shape its connections. That insight may be key to understanding how nerve cells wire the brain, says study coauthor Kristian Franze. “I strongly believe that it’s not enough to look at chemistry,” says Franze, a mechanobiologist at the University of Cambridge. “We need to look at environmental factors, too.”

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