Neurons Actively Compensate for Electrical Imbalances at the Genetic Level, MU Researchers Demonstrate: New study finds that neurons actively “fine tune” themselves at the genetic level

Neurons are electrically charged cells in the nervous system that interpret and transmit information using electrical and chemical signals. A neuron’s electrical charge is determined by the flow of ions – charged atoms – in and out of the cell through pores, called ion channels. These pores open, allowing ions to rush in, and then shut. The neuron becomes charged and “sparks” the next neuron in line.

NIH scientists find that restocking new cells in the brain’s center for smell maintains crucial circuitry

For decades, scientists thought that neurons in the brain were born only during the early development period and could not be replenished. More recently, however, they discovered cells with the ability to divide and turn into new neurons in specific brain regions. The function of these neuroprogenitor cells remains an intense area of research. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that newly formed brain cells in the mouse olfactory system — the area that processes smells — play a critical role in maintaining proper connections.

When we learn, we associate a sensory experience either with other stimuli or with a certain type of behavior. The neurons in the cerebral cortex that transmit the information modify the synaptic connections that they have with the other neurons. According to a generally-accepted model of synaptic plasticity, a neuron that communicates with others of the same kind emits an electrical impulse as well as activating its synapses transiently.

The findings suggest that the development of a small therapeutic molecule—one that can cross the blood-brain barrier and block S-nitrosylation of MEF2 or in some other way increase MEF2 transcriptional activity—could promote new brain cell growth and protect existing cells in several neurodegenerative disorders.

A new study by researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute (Sanford-Burnham) has identified a chemical “switch” that controls both the generation of new neurons from neural stem cells and the survival of existing nerve cells in the brain. The switch that shuts off the signals that promote neuron production and survival is in abundance in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and stroke victims. The studysuggests that chemical switch, MEF2, may be a potential therapeutic target to protect against neuronal loss in a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autism.

New light-sensitive protein enables simpler, more powerful optogenetics.

Optogenetics, a technology that allows scientists to control brain activity by shining light on neurons, relies on light-sensitive proteins that can suppress or stimulate electrical signals within cells. This technique requires a light source to be implanted in the brain, where it can reach the cells to be controlled. MIT engineers have now developed the first light-sensitive molecule that enables neurons to be silenced noninvasively, using a light source outside the skull. This makes it possible to do long-term studies without an implanted light source. The protein, known as Jaws, also allows a larger volume of tissue to be influenced at once. This noninvasive approach could pave the way to using optogenetics in human patients to treat epilepsy and other neurological disorders, the researchers say, although much more testing and development is needed.