The Clonmany woman spearheading Motor Neurone Disease research

Anna Claire Devlin.
Anna Claire Devlin.

A Motor Neurone Disease researcher from Inishowen has identified how impairments in nerve signalling could be an early sign of the disease.

Anna-Claire Devlin from Clonmany is a PhD student at 
St. Andrew’s University in Scotland and her findings have recently been published in a number of medical journals.

The 25-year-old is under the leadership of Dr. Gareth Miles in the University of St Andrews, Scotland and Professor Siddharthan Chandran from the University of Edinburgh, both leading names in MND research.

The team have discovered new, groundbreaking ways of identifying what happens to motor neurons by using stems cells derived from the skin cells of those living with MND and ‘healthy’ people.

Motor Neurone Disease, as the name suggests, damages motor neurons in the brain.

These motor neurons control the movement of muscles in the body by sending electrical impulses to them - known as ‘action potential.’ This damage causes the loss of these signals, leading to paralysis and death. There are limited treatment options and currently no cure.

Anna-Claire’s research combines the stem cell derived motor neurons and a technique measuring their function.

She identified that even before there were any signs of physical damage to the neuron, those with MND lose the ability to generate those electrical signals which make the muscles contract.

Anna-Claire said the early loss of function is associated with changes in ion channels, a specialised protein, which generates the signals. It is hoped these findings, along with further research Anna-Claire will be undertaking over the next two years, will lead to drugs being developed and tested in order to treat and eventually cure motor neurone disease.

Speaking to the ‘Journal,’ Anna-Claire, who is in her fourth and final year of her Phd said she was delighted to be involved in the research, adding it can be “very frustrating at times when experiments don’t go to plan but worth it when we get some promising results.”

Anna-Claire undertook her undergraduate degree in Anatomy in NUI Galway.

While there she became interested in Neuroscience and “in particular how stem cells could now be used as a model for Neurodegenerative diseases.”

After reading an article by her now supervisor Dr. Miles, she contacted him to enquire if he needed a Phd student and “by chance,” he wanted a 
student to colloborate with Dr. Siddharthan. After meeting them both and deciding on a project, Anna-Claire received funding from the Euan MacDonald centre for 
Motor Neurone Disease Research in Edinburgh and the Motor Neuron Disease Association (MNDA).

Anna-Claire studied the nerve impulses in the motor neuron by using a technique called whole-cell patch 
clamp recording.

This allowed them to record the electrical activity of the motor neurons and detect changes in the specialised membrane proteins, which are necessary for producing the action potentials.

The experiment included a recording chamber, which was where the cells were placed and supplied with oxygenated artificial 
spinal fluid and a microscope lens, submerged in this fluid.

Small capillary tubes (pipettes) were then attached to the motor neurons. A 
finely-controlled micro-manipulator wasmoved towards the recording chamber, down the lens and towards the motor neuron. The pipette was then moved towards the surface of the cell and gently pushed up against it. Suction is 
then used to pull the membrane up the tube and when a tight seal is formed, the membrane was broken using further suction, so the inside of the cell 
was continuous with the inside of the tube.

This enabled them to record the action signals, which were then amplified and recorded on a computer.

Anna-Claire said the findings highlight how ion channels may be potential targets in future therapies and also shows how studying the stem cell derived motor neurons may be important for the development and testing of drugs to treat MND.

She added how they are also now looking at “how other cell types in the brain and spinal cord may influence the function of motor neurones in patients with MND.”

Motor Neurone Disease has been typically extremely underfunded and Anna-Claire said that as an MND researcher she thought it was “brilliant to see so may people take part in and raise awareness for MND through the ice-bucket challenge, with the money raised going towards patient care and much needed research.”

For further information on Motor Neurone Disease, visit the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association at www., telephone: 01 8730422 email: or contact the helpline at Freefone 1800 403 403.