Reactivation of damaged motor neurons using magnetic fields

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In a cell culture experiment: Dysfunctional motor neurons from ALS patients stimulated by magnetic pulses (scroll top left) regain their original performance. Credit: HZDR/Sahneweiß

Motor neurons in healthy individuals send signals to skeletal muscles. However, ALS is currently an incurable, neurodegenerative disease in which motor neurons are severely damaged and can no longer transmit these signals. An interdisciplinary group at the HZDR has demonstrated in cell experiments that magnetic fields can restore impaired motor neurons. As reported now in the Journal, this could serve as the foundation for an entirely new therapeutic approach to treating neurodegenerative diseases. cells.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is an incurable motor neuron disease that usually leads to death within two to five years. A successful treatment has not yet been developed.

Thomas Hermannsdorfer, Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rosendorf (HZDR), works closely with Dr. Professor Richard Funk, head of the Dresden High Magnetic Field Laboratory (HLD) of the HZDR. Together with colleagues from the Universities of Dresden and Rostock, they assembled a research team drawn from the fields of physics, medicine, biology and biotechnology to investigate the therapeutic effect of magnetic fields on impaired motor neurons. Besides the HLD, the Center for Radiopharmaceutical Cancer Research (ZRT) of the HZDR was also involved in the project.

Promising in vitro tests

Cell biologists first reprogrammed skin cells from healthy individuals and ALS patients into motor neurons. Motor neurons have projections (axons) up to a meter long that are used to transport objects and transmit information. Dr. Researchers led by Arun Pal (HZDR) exposed motor neurons programmed in this way to magnetic fields of different strengths for different periods of time in Petri dishes. Additional magnetic field parameters such as frequency, orientation and waveform were varied.

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„In a series of experiments, we were able to demonstrate that motor neurons from ALS patients respond to magnetic fields,” Paul says. „Axonal transport of mitochondria (the powerhouses of the cell) and other organelles that are impaired in ALS cells is reactivated by stimulation with magnetic fields. Also, axonal regeneration – which is the ability to regrow and reconnect – can be restored.” The team used live cell imaging and cell biology methods for their study. At the same time, the team could also demonstrate that healthy cells were not damaged by this stimulation.

While the results are a milestone for Herrmannsdörfer and his team, he puts them in perspective. „We view these trial results as an encouraging approach on the path to potential novel treatments for ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases. However, we also know that more extensive follow-up studies are needed to confirm our findings.”

Transition to in vivo studies

Scientists are planning long-term and in vivo studies to further expand the therapeutic potential of magnetic field therapy. These studies include investigating the optimal technical parameters of the applied magnetic field. In addition, they aim to deepen the understanding of the cellular response to various magnetic stimuli and therefore better understand the underlying mechanisms.

They will also study how cellular changes in other neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s disease respond to magnetic field stimulation. For a long time, scientists have been planning clinical pilot studies using special equipment for magnetic resonance imaging.

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