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The Biology

The central nervous system forms in the early embryo from a flat sheet of cells, called the neural plate. This rolls up to form a tube that will develop into the brain and spinal cord. This process is known as neurulation.   Animation of neurulation

Image © Kate Storey

How it works

Cells in a flat sheet have to alter their shapes in order to make the neural tube. This involves changes in the amount and organisation of proteins inside cells, which influence how cells move and contact each other.

Over 200 different genes (which code for proteins) are known to affect neural tube formation. These include genes for signals that help cells communicate, control the number of cells made and determine their shape and movement.

Find out more:
An over-view of neurulation

Key labs that work on Neurulation:
Nick Greene & Andrew Copp
Institute of Child Health, University College London

Lee Niswander, University of Colorado

John Wallingford, Austin Texas

Selected research papers:
Paper investigating cell shape changes during neurulation

Research paper modelling tissue mechanical properties regulating neural tube closure

Review of genetics and development of neural tube defects

Review of neural tube defects -disorders of neurulation and related embryonic processes

When development goes wrong

Failure of neurulation leaves an open neural tube and is known as a neural tube defect (NTD). This is one of the most common and severe disorders seen in newborn humans and most affected embryos do not survive.

Young man with spina-bifida

image © Wellcome Images

Small failures in neural tube closure can be treated. These include various forms of spina bifida. The cause of NTDs is multi-factorial and involves genetic and environmental influences.

The incidence of NTDs can be reduced if mothers take a folic acid supplement around the period of conception. However, some forms of NTD are resistant to folic acid. A key area of current research is to find out how folic acid protects against neural tube defects and why some forms are not prevented by this treatment.

Find out more:

Spina-Bifida Association – US based website, which serves as resource centre for this birth defect

SHINE- a UK based charity supporting people living with spina bifida or hydrocephalus

Selected research papers
A study of Gene-environment interactions, folate metabolism and the embryonic nervous system

Neural Fold dress: Details

Neural fold dress: Nylon

The dress is made of white fake fur. The shapes on the back depict the rolling up of the neural plate. The developing somites, which will from the vertebrae of the backbone, are shaved into the fur flanking the neural tube.

Copyright Helen Storey


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