Samuel L. Pfaff is a professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Over the first four years, Pfaff and his research team will receive two million dollars from the National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). The funding will enable them to continue their work on the molecular “zip code” on the growing end of nerve cells that guides them to their correct “address” on the muscle, a process called neuronal pathfinding.

Skeletal muscle consists of thousands of muscle fibres, each controlled by one motor neuron whose cell body lies in the brain or spinal cord. Connections between muscle and nerve cells are established embryonically when newborn neurons extend axons to “wire” the appropriate muscle fibre. The wiring process is highly orchestrated – each motor neuron has already pledged allegiance to a particular muscle fibre before it reaches out to connect with its predetermined partner.

Pfaff is trying to specify the genes within neuronal stem cells that determine the future identity of nerve cells. This process equips growing nerve cells with the “molecular toolbox” that allows them to recognize and follow the cues that lead them to their predestined target.

Neural stem cells can now be coaxed to develop into motor neurons in a test tube and have the potential to repair spinal cord injuries. “It is not enough to make the right cell type, you need to connect them to the right target,” explains Pfaff.

Authorized by the United States Congress for research in the neurosciences, the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award is a merit award that is given to distinguished investigators who have a record of substantial contributions on the “cutting edge” of neurobiology and who can be expected to be highly productive for the next seven years.; Source: Salk Institute for Biological Studies