Photo shows different neurotransmitters in red and purple in normal frog embryos and embryos with decreased and increased nerve activity (from top to bottom) Photo credit: Laura N. Borodinsky, UCSD
Neurobiologists at the University of California, San Diego have discovered that altering electrical activity in nerve cells can change the chemical messengers the cells generate to communicate with other cells, a finding that may one day lead to new treatments for mood and learning disorders.
In a study published in the June 3rd issue of the journal Nature, a team led by UCSD professor of biology Nicholas Spitzer shows that manipulating the electrical activity of developing nerve cells can alter the type of neurotransmitter—chemicals that carry information between nerve cells at junctions called “synapses”—they produce. A review paper discussing these results will appear in July in Trends in Neurosciences. The results are important because scientists had long believed that the different kinds of neurotransmitters used by different nerve cells were genetically programmed into the cell.
"If you were to ask neuroscientists what learning is in cellular and molecular terms, none would have said it is the changing identity of neurotransmitters,” says Spitzer. “That would have been heresy because everyone thought neurotransmitter identity was genetically programmed. Our results show that by altering neural activity, you can change the identity of the neurotransmitter a particular cell produces, raising the possibility that disorders caused by problems with neurotransmitters could be treated by modifying neural activity.”
Sherry Seethaler | UCSD
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