This artwork represents the use of single light stimulus on nerve cells within a C. elegans worm. Nick Valmas and Dee McGrath, for the Hilliard laboratory.

Our researchers are one step closer to understanding neurodegenerative diseases after developing a tool to explore how nerve cells become damaged.

The research team, led by Dr Massimo Hilliard, along with Dr Marc Hammarlund at Yale University and Dr Hang Lu at Georgia Institute of Technology, used a fluorescent protein named KillerRed to damage neurons in roundworms.

They then used a single light stimulus on nerve cells producing KillerRed, and the cells, in turn, generated reactive oxygen species that damage the neuron.

The tool allowed the team to study how the worm’s nerve cells responded to excessive free radicals triggered by KillerRed.

“This newly developed tool will allow us not only to investigate neuronal function, but also to understand how neurons respond to damage caused by reactive oxygen species, which are generated in several neurodegenerative diseases,” Dr Hilliard said.

“One of the best way to interrogate a neuronal circuit is to destroy some of its specific components and then study the resulting effects.

“The study showed KillerRed activation was efficient and versatile, functioning in several different neuronal types, and highly specific, leaving unharmed surrounding tissues and cells that were not expressing this molecule.”

These results might have broad implications in brain research providing valuable insights on neuronal function as well as how neurons get damaged and die.

The publication, “Rapid and permanent neuronal inactivation in vivo via subcellular generation of reactive oxygen using KillerRed”, is published in the 31 October 2013 issue of the journal Cell Reports.