If brain cell messages could be separated from the “noise” of other brain activity and clearly understood, researchers would be closer to repairing damage caused by a number of nervous system diseases paralyzing injuries and combat wounds.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston have actually done this with mice. They managed to isolate distinct types of nerve cells then identify the genes and molecules responsible for their development. This feat sets the stage for using nervous system stem cells to repair nerve cells damaged by spinal cord injuries or affected by diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or “Lou Gehrig’s disease”). For example, some of the genes and molecules might be manipulated to enhance the survival of damaged motor cells in the brain, or to coax stem cells into replacing non-functioning nerve cells.

Both treatments might someday help disabled people walk again.