The extraordinarily diverse functions of the nervous system, from cognition to movement, are possible because neurons are assembled into precisely ordered networks that permit them to rapidly and accurately communicate with their synaptic targets.
The Butler laboratory seeks to understand the mechanisms that establish these neuronal networks during development with the long-term goal of determining how this process may be co-opted to regenerate diseased or damaged circuits. Working the developing spinal cord, we have shown that molecules previously identified as morphogens, such as the Bone Morphogenetic Proteins (BMPs) family of growth factors, can also act as axon guidance signals.
We are now determining the key intrinsic factors that translate the ability of the BMPs to direct cell fate and axon guidance decisions, two strikingly different processes in the generation of neural circuits. During the course of these studies, we have identified a critical mechanism by which the rate of axon outgrowth is controlled during embryogenesis, thereby permitting neural circuits to develop in synchrony with the rest of the embryo.
The Butler laboratory is currently assessing how this mechanism can be harnessed to accelerate the regeneration of injured peripheral nerves. The successful implementation of this technology could result in significantly improved recovery times for patients with damaged nervous systems.