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Electrical zap of cells shapes growing brains

Researchers tweaked voltage in frog embryo cell membranes, telling tissue where to grow and even fixing defects

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5:01pm, March 10, 2015
cell voltage

VOLT JOLT  Researchers changed the voltage in frog embryo brain cells (iii) to fix the damage caused by a mutation that makes the brain grow abnormally (ii), and make its development more like that of a normal embryo (i). Markers point to differences in brain development.

A little electricity goes a long way in shaping the growing brain. The electric charge across cell membranes directs many aspects of brain development, scientists report March 11 in the Journal of Neuroscience. Harnessing these charges could eventually allow scientists to fix birth defects or grow new tissue.

The researchers tinkered with the voltage in cell membranes of developing African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis)and found that electric charge plays a role in how big the brain grows and what kind of tissue developing cells grow into. Changing voltage, also called membrane potential, even fixed a brain-damaging birth defect.

The new research “highlights the importance of membrane potential and its role in development,” says Simon Perathoner, a developmental biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany.

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