Scientists have discovered a protein that helps direct traffic within brain cells.

The discovery of the role filled by the protein, called MEC-17, could play a part in research of diseases like Huntington's, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, in which brain cells degenerate, the researchers say.

Scientists have known that the degeneration is partly due to changes in the tiny tubes inside brain cells, called microtubules. These tubes work like train tracks inside cells, making sure proteins, nutrients and waste products get to their destinations.

The tubes also play important roles in cell growth, and in the signaling that happens between brains cells, the researchers said.

"Any drugs that modulate transport along microtubules could have uses in neurodegenerative diseases," study researcher Jacek Gaertig, a professor at the University of Georgia, told MyHealthNewsDaily. "Neurodegenerative diseases are associated with impaired transport inside nerve cells."

The researchers found that MEC-17 creates marks on microtubules. The marks tell the tubes which proteins to transport across the brain cell, and in what direction. Some microtubules have more marks than others, depending on whether they are receiving messages or sending them, Gaertig said.

Gaertig and other researchers discovered MEC-17 by studying human cancer cells and the nerve cells of other organisms, including zebrafish and the often-studied nematode worm called C. elegans.

In zebrafish, for example, depletion of MEC-17 led to neuromuscular defects. In the nematode worm, it affected the creature's sensation of touch, according to the study.

Now that the mechanism is understood, research can be done that may lead to development of a drug that could block or enhance MEC-17, Gaertig said.

This article was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience.