New insights into how nerve cells communicate to control learning and memory are likely to affect how researchers view, and treat, neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
British researchers at universities in Bristol and Central Lancashire have discovered they can control a process known as long-term potentiation (LTP) — strengthening the connections between neurons — in a previously unknown way.
The study, “Metabotropic action of postsynaptic kainate receptors triggers hippocampal long-term potentiation,” appeared in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
“These discoveries represent a significant advance and will have far-reaching implications for the understanding of memory, cognition, developmental plasticity and neuronal network formation and stabilization,” Jeremy Henley, the study’s senior author, said in a press release.
“In summary, we believe that this is a groundbreaking study that opens new lines of inquiry which will increase understanding of the molecular details of synaptic function in health and disease,” said Henley, who is also a professor of molecular neuroscience in the University of Bristol’s School of Biochemistry.
LTP forms the basis of learning, memory and brain plasticity. In essence, these are events that occur when a set of neurons becomes more active and the information flow across synapses (connections between neurons) increases. To make things easier on the brain, mechanisms exist that strengthen the connection between neurons that often signal together.
While scientists have learned that LTP involves changes in how so-called NMDA receptors work in a synapse, the research team discovered that another route exists. Their experiments showed that LTP can also be triggered by kainate receptors.
The finding opens up a whole new avenue of research to understand how this alternative route is affected in diseases where there is too little long-term potentiation, such as in dementia. In the long run, such research could lead to discoveries of new therapies for neurodegeneration.
“Untangling the interactions between the signal receptors in the brain not only tells us more about the inner workings of a healthy brain, but also provides a practical insight into what happens when we form new memories. If we can preserve these signals it may help protect against brain diseases,” said Dr. Milos Petrovic, the study’s lead author and a reader in neuroscience at the University of Central Lancashire.
“This is certainly an extremely exciting discovery and something that could potentially impact the global population,” added Petrovic. “We have discovered potential new drug targets that could help to cure the devastating consequences of dementias, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Collaborating with researchers across the world in order to identify new ways to fight disease like this is what world-class scientific research is all about, and we look forward to continuing our work in this area.”