Motor Neuron Center
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One of the major challenges facing researchers who wish to develop therapeutic strategies for ALS and SMA is to better understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying motor neuron degeneration and loss. Such mechanisms constitute potential therapeutic targets - steps that can be controlled so as to enhance motor neuron survival or prevent degeneration. In practice, it is difficult to gain such insight by direct study of patients or animal models of disease. Work in my laboratory therefore focuses on the study of motor neuron development as an important area in its own right, but also as an approach to understanding and analyzing mechanisms underlying SMA and ALS.

This has been successful in several ways. For example, by studying the motor neuron cell death process that occurs naturally during fetal development, we discovered a novel degenerative mechanism that we now believe to be involved in ALS. Similarly, the techniques we developed for culturing purified motor neurons allow us to screen large numbers of agents for their ability to promote motor neuron survival and growth. This has led to identification not only of natural survival-promoting polypeptides called neurotrophic factors, but also of chemical compounds with similar properties. The latter provide new insights into mechanisms involved and can also serve as the basis for subsequent drug development.

By providing an environment in which we can interact with both basic and clinical researchers at the highest level, the Motor Neuron Center will significantly reinforce our efforts toward effective therapy for motor neuron diseases. In collaboration with other MNC members, we will develop new cell models that more closely mimic ALS and SMA and use high-throughput screening techniques to identify genes and chemical compounds that influence the disease mechanisms. By further studying the differences between groups of motor neurons that innervate different muscles during development, we will better be able to analyze the process of selective motor neuron loss in animal models of each disease. Lastly, by creating mouse models in which genes that affect motor neuron death, survival or growth are either absent or over-expressed, we will be able to test the role of these potential therapeutic targets in models of both SMA and ALS. Our aim is to move each project forward to the stage where it not only provides new biological insights but also, when appropriate, can serve as the basis for future development of new therapeutic strategies.

BACKGROUND AND EDUCATION: Christopher Henderson is Co-Director of the Columbia University Center for Motor Neuron Biology and Disease. He holds a joint appointment as Professor in the Departments of Pathology and Cell Biology and Neurology, and is on the faculty of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior. Henderson obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge (UK) in 1979. He subsequently spent much of his career in France, first at the Pasteur Institute in Paris with Jean-Pierre Changeux, then as CNRS Director of Research in Montpellier and Marseille, where he directed the INSERM research unit on Neuronal Development and Pathology. Henderson's interest in translational neuroscience led him to spend time as a Visiting Scientist with Genentech, Inc. (San Francisco, CA) and to become co-founder of Trophos, S.A. (Marseille, France), a drug discovery biotech focused on neurodegenerative disease, including ALS and SMA. He moved to Columbia in May, 2005.


1992-2005 Chair, Study Section for Neurobiology, AFM (French MDA)
1994-2005 Jury, IPSEN international prize on "Neuronal Plasticity"
1997-2001 Human Frontier Science Program Fellowships Committee in Neuroscience
1997- Associate Editor, Neuron
1999- Joint Editor-in-Chief, European Journal of Neuroscience
1999-2005 Coordinator of four successful European Union Research Networks
2001-2004 Faculty member, Faculty of 1000
2001-2004 Scientific Advisory Committee, Packard Center for ALS Research, Johns Hopkins, Baltimore
2005 Distinguished Professor, New York State Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research

  • Raoul, C., Henderson, C.E., and Pettmann, B. (1999). Programmed cell death of motoneurons triggered through the Fas death receptor. J. Cell Biol. 147: 1049-1061.
  • Nishimune, H., Vasseur, S., Wiese, S., Birling, M.C., Holtmann, B., Sendtner, M., Iovanna, J.L., and Henderson, C.E. (2000). Reg-2 is a motoneuron neurotrophic factor and a signalling intermediate in the CNTF survival pathway. Nature Cell Biol. 2: 906-914.
  • Livet, J., Sigrist, M., Stroebel, S., De Paola, V., Price, S.R., Henderson, C.E., Jessell, T.M., and Arber, S. (2002). ETS gene Pea3 controls the central position and terminal arborization of specific motor neuron pools. Neuron 35: 877-892.
  • Raoul, C., Estévez, A.G., Nishimune, H., Cleveland, D.W., deLapeyrière, O., Henderson, C.E., Haase, G., and Pettmann, B. (2002). Motoneuron death triggered by a specific pathway downstream of Fas: potentiation by ALS-linked SOD1 mutations. Neuron 35: 1067-1083.
  • Junghans, D., Chauvet, S., Buhler, E., Dudley, K., Sykes, T., and Henderson, C.E. (2004). The CES-2-related transcription factor E4BP4 is an intrinsic regulator of motoneuron growth and survival. Development 131: 4425-4434.
  • Raoul, C., Abbas-Terki, T., Bensadoun, J.C., Guillot, S., Haase, G., Szulc, J., Henderson, C.E., and Aebischer, P. (2005). Lentiviral-mediated silencing of SOD1 through RNA interference retards disease onset and progression in a mouse model of ALS. Nature Medicine 11: 423-428.

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