AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 26, Number 3, 2017

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3-D Protein Structure Offers Insight into Rapid Communication by Brain Cells

An intricate new three-dimensional protein structure is providing a detailed look into how brain cells communicate rapidly.

By visualizing how three neural proteins interact with one another, researchers have revealed how they help groups of brain cells release chemical messages at the same time.

The work describes a surprising new cooperation among the three proteins, and could offer insight into other processes where cells secrete molecules, including insulin and airway mucus.

When a group of neurons receives an electrical signal, the cells release chemicals called neurotransmitters nearly instantaneously – within less than one thousandth of a second. Neurons hold neurotransmitters in bubble-like structures called synaptic vesicles. These structures rest inside the end of long, thin projections that point toward neighboring cells. To free neurotransmitters from their bubbles, neurons must fuse vesicle membranes with the outer membrane of the projections. This opens the bubbles and dumps their contents into the space between cells. The chemical signals then float to neighboring cells to relay a message.

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