Samuel L. Pfaff, Ph.D.,
The Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA
The Pfaff laboratory focuses on the embryonic development of motor neurons -- cells that transmit signals from the brain or spinal cord to muscles throughout the body to generate movement.
Specifically, the lab has been targeting these several areas of investigation:
- Stem cells and fate choices: How do stem cells "choose" from among a variety of fates and acquire their specific identities as motor neurons?
- Axon guidance: How do motor axons -- the slender projections from nerve cells -- travel from the brain or spinal cord to their target destinations throughout the body?
- Locomotor circuitry: How does the wiring process develop, and how is it orchestrated in such a way as to enable us to walk?
Dr. Pfaff and his colleagues have been seeking answers to these questions via mouse and human embryonic stem cell research. Further, they have been using mouse genetics to study the underpinnings of the neural network known as the central pattern generator (CPG), which generates the coordinated and rhythmic firing of motor neurons needed for walking.
Dr. Pfaff believes that these studies will reveal the kinds of practical information needed to develop treatment for spinal cord injury, as well as diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, post polio syndrome and spinal muscle atrophy.