Lewis, K.E. (2006) How do genes regulate simple behaviours? Understanding how different neurons in the vertebrate spinal cord are genetically specified. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences. 361(1465):45-66.
Understanding how the vertebrate central nervous system develops and functions is a major goal of a large body of biological research. This research is driven both by intellectual curiosity about this amazing organ that coordinates our conscious and unconscious bodily processes, perceptions and actions and by the practical desire to develop effective treatments for people with spinal cord injuries or neurological diseases. In recent years, we have learnt an impressive amount about how the nerve cells that communicate with muscles, motoneurons, are made in a developing embryo and this knowledge has enabled researchers to grow motoneurons from stem cells. Building on the success of these studies, researchers have now started to unravel how most of the other nerve cells in the spinal cord are made and function. This review will describe what we currently know about spinal cord nerve cell development, concentrating on the largest category of nerve cells, which are called interneurons. I will then discuss how we can build and expand upon this knowledge base to elucidate the complete genetic programme that determines how different spinal cord nerve cells are made and connected up into neural circuits with particular functions.