Young Neurobiologist Wins NIH Innovator Award

Chances are, you didn’t spend much time this morning putting on your shoes or thinking about which route to take to work. You can thank a healthy, functioning nervous system for that.

But what happens when signals within neurons that instruct the nerve cell to grow and survive go awry? For example, when signals get confused and go to the wrong destination, or the motor that fuels transport of the signals peters out? These neuronal mishaps can be the seeds of devastating neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s.

Avital Rodal, assistant professor of biology, hopes to answer questions like these in research investigating how neuronal firing affects the transport of signaling materials within neurons. By understanding how a healthy transport system works, Rodal expects to identify potential problems that lead to disease.

She recently won a five-year $1.5 million National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator award because her work has the potential to speed the translation of research into improved health.

Rodal’s lab studies how “packets” containing growth and survival signals are transported inside cells. Successful transport of these signals is critical, she says, since nerve cells can reach from the spinal cord all the way to the body’s extremities.

“If you’re a blue whale, that can be over 20 meters,” says Rodal. “There is a whole highway system that packages these growth signals into little packets that can then move along roads or tracks to another part of the neuron.

“In Lou Gehrig’s disease, motor neurons that innervate your finger die, in part because they lack these growth factors,” says Rodal. “In neurodegenerative diseases, the molecular machines that drive the traffic of these packets go wrong. We’d like to be able to turn growth factor signaling back into a healthy state, and to do that we need to know what’s happening to each one of these machines that moves things.”