Bennett Novitch, assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, was awarded an MDA research grant totaling $300,000 over a period of three years to study the development of motor neurons that control respiration and their significance for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).
SMA is due to the loss of motor neurons (nerve cells that control muscle activity), and in the most severe forms of SMA, the motor neurons controlling respiration are affected early in the disease.
“These observations raise the possibility that these respiratory defects might have a developmental origin [that is, they may arise in the developing embryo or fetus],” Novitch says, “resulting either from the improper formation of respiratory motor neurons, or their integration into functional motor circuits. This issue has been difficult to address, however, as our knowledge of the developmental origins of respiratory motor neurons and their assembly into circuits is incomplete.”
In this study, Novitch will study development of respiratory motor neurons and their organization into motor circuits that carry out both inspiration and expiration (breathing in and out). He also will study the gene networks that control this development. Better understanding of these networks, and the developmental processes they control, may lead to better understanding of how respiratory motor neurons are affected in SMA.
“Our study will provide new insights into the root causes of SMA and potentially lead to the discovery of new therapeutic targets. Moreover, by studying the process by which respiratory motor circuits are initially formed, we will gain vital information on how this activity may be recapitulated to rebuild damaged circuits to help patients maintain their ability to breathe independently,” he says.
Funding for this MDA grant began August 1, 2013.