University of Arizona researchers have made a discovery about how nerve cells make connections. This discovery is an important step towards curing conditions like spinal cord injuries and Alzheimer's.

Developed nerves have a short, truncated branch called an axon and long branch called a dendrite.

Sourav Ghosh, UA assistant professor of cellular and molecular medicine, said that this structure determines how nerves send signals.

"When nerves fire and communicate information, it's direction," Ghosh said. "It's sort of the basis for directionality of function."

Ghosh and UA doctoral candidate Sara Parker have been studying the polarity of neurons in their lab by closely examining a family of proteins and watching the neurons go through their development process.

Parker said she would knock down the levels of a protein or introduce excessive amounts of the protein to try and influence the establishment of a neuron's polarity.

"What we found is that when I disrupt this short form, I end up creating neurons developing multiple axons," Parker explained.

She added that usually neurons only have one axon.

This new understanding of how axons and dendrites are created could possibly help those with spinal injuries or neurodegenerative diseases.

"In traumatic injury what happens is that the axon is severed, but the cell is still alive and if we understand this mechanism and play with it to make the cell come up with a new axon, that would be exciting," Ghosh said.