Exploring Uncharted Territory in Human Health

The similarities between the nervous systems of a tiny, transparent worm and humans provide UCSF researcher Nicole L’Etoile with a unique living laboratory for studying basic neurological functions.

What can C. elegans, a tiny, soil-dwelling roundworm, teach us about human health? A lot, says Noelle L’Etoile, PhD, postdoc alum and associate professor in the UCSF School of Dentistry’s Department of Cell and Tissue Biology. Although the nematode averages just 1 millimeter in length, its nervous system consists of the same basic biological units as the human nervous system. That makes C. elegans a unique living laboratory for the study of our most elemental neurological functions. 

In her groundbreaking work, L’Etoile uses C. elegans as a model for studying how neurons talk to each other – the foundation for memory.  

“There’s so much we still don’t understand about the way information is transmitted on a cellular level in humans,” she says, “but we’re beginning to understand these things in C. elegans.” The roundworms are transparent, so under the microscope, L’Etoile can watch their cells fire in real time.  

“It’s exciting to see!” she says. “Neurons glow bright when they exchange information. You can map out the entire nervous system, and you can silence and activate neurons to replicate different disease states.” 

L’Etoile’s work has fascinating implications for a wide range of health issues, including pain – which can be especially relevant to dentistry – addiction, and sleep (yes, even roundworms sleep). C. elegans’ three-week life span also makes it ideal for studying memory disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, neurodegenerative illnesses like Parkinson’s disease, and other impacts of aging. Nematode genes can be modified to manifest these conditions, providing an innovative platform for testing early-detection methods and treatments. 

Although L’Etoile’s work concentrates on the most basic neurological links, the unique possibilities for collaboration that UCSF offers energize her. As she’s mining knowledge from C. elegans, UCSF colleagues are expanding on her findings, applying computational biology to map the roundworm and ultimately the human brain. Their success could aid in cracking the code of memory, discovering solutions for migraines and epilepsy, healing trauma, developing new biomaterials that could be used to repair the nervous system, and building tiny sensors that could be implanted in the human body to monitor glucose levels or detect early disease states. 

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