Updated on 29 June 2016
Singapore: What goes on inside the brain when we learn new things? Much still remains wrapped in mystery, but scientists have found a way to examine this at the molecular level.
Researchers in Japan have engineered an artificial switch that could let scientists turn individual neurotransmitter receptors on and off. Shedding light on these receptors' role in memory formation could contribute to the development of new drugs for neurological diseases, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and ALS.
Neurotransmitter receptors help relay information from neuron to neuron.
"Investigating the functions of various neurotransmitter receptors could be immensely useful, because a majority of drugs on the market target them," said lead author Ryou Kubota of Kyoto University. "But with so many similarly-structured proteins in the membrane, it's been extremely difficult to determine which receptors do what. Discovering the functions of each neurotransmitter receptor in the brain could help us understand how we learn and acquire memory; to do that, it's crucial to be able to activate them selectively."
In the study, published in Nature Chemistry, the team succeeded in selectively activating glutamate receptors, which are pacman-shaped neutrotransmitter receptors known to be involved in memory formation.