Newly Funded UNC Computer Simulations Could Help Find LEMS Treatments

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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Computer Simulations, UNC

An $86,880 grant from the National Science Foundation will support the development of computer simulations that aim to improve scientists’ understanding of the neuromuscular junction (NMJ) — the site where nerve cells connect with muscles. The results may help researchers find treatments for Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome (LEMS) and other neuromuscular diseases.

The project, “Presynaptic structure-function relationships that control AP waveforms, calcium ion, entry, and transmitter release at neuromuscular junctions (NMJs),” will be conducted by a team at University of North Carolina Pembroke (UNCP). The team’s leader is Bob Poage, PhD, a professor of biology. Students in his lab will work with investigators and other trainees from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

“We are delighted and proud that Dr. Poage and his students are contributing to this important research,” Richard Gay, PhD, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UNCP, said in a press release.

“The work may lead to new insights into the functioning of the human body and improve the quality of life for those suffering from diseases like Lambert-Eaton Myasthenic syndrome,” he said.

Through a combination of electrical and chemical processes, nerve cells can send signals to muscle cells across the NMJ to control muscle movement.

LEMS is caused by the immune system erroneously attacking the body’s NMJs, ultimately interfering with normal nerve-muscle cell communication and leading to symptoms such as muscle weakness.

The exact biological processes by which nerve and muscle cells communicate are extremely complex, involving a myriad of proteins and other cellular molecules that act and interact in ways that are not fully understood. The overarching goal of the new research project is to create computer simulations that mimic these activities.

Such simulations will be generated based on electrical recordings of nerve cell activity and super high-resolution microscopy to determine the location of relevant molecules in nerve cells. Various models will be generated, tested, and then refined to produce the most accurate simulations possible.

The hope is that these models will increase the basic understanding of how NMJs work, in addition to providing insights into conditions in which their function is impaired, such as LEMS. The research also may have broader implications, since it will assess the density and location of various important proteins in nerve cells, and thereby have relevance in other neurological conditions.

In addition, images and animations generated through the models may have applications in education.