Researchers find protein essential for cognition, mental health

July 1, 2013

The ability to maintain mental representations of ourselves and the world—the fundamental building block of human cognition—arises from the firing of highly evolved neuronal circuits, a process that is weakened in schizophrenia. In a new study, researchers at Yale University School of Medicine pinpoint key molecular actions of proteins that allow the creation of mental representations necessary for higher cognition that are genetically altered in schizophrenia. The study was released July 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Working memory, the mind's mental sketch pad, depends upon the proper functioning of a network of pyramid-shaped brain cells in the prefrontal cortex, the seat of higher order thinking in humans. To keep information in the conscious mind, these must stimulate each other through a special group of receptors. The Yale team discovered this stimulation requires the to activate a specific protein in the nicotinic family of receptors—the alpha-7 nicotinic receptor.

Acetycholine is released when we are awake—but not in deep sleep. These receptors allow prefrontal circuits to come "online" when we awaken, allowing us to perform complex mental tasks. This process is enhanced by caffeine in coffee, which increases acetylcholine release. As their name suggests, nicotinic alpha-7 receptors are also activated by nicotine, which may may help to explain why smoking can focus attention and calm behavior, functions of the .

The results also intrigued researchers because alpha-7 nicotinic receptors are genetically altered in schizophrenia, a disease marked by disorganized thinking. "Prefrontal networks allow us to form and hold coherent thoughts, a process that is impaired in schizophrenia," said Amy Arnsten, professor of neurobiology, investigator for Kavli Institute, and one of the senior authors of the paper. "A great majority of schizophrenics smoke, which makes sense because stimulation of the nicotinic alpha7 receptors would strengthen and lessen thought disorder."

Arnsten said that new medications that stimulate alpha-7 may hold promise for treating cognitive disorders.

Publication of the PNAS paper comes on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the death of Yale neurobiologist Patricia Goldman-Rakic, who was hit by a car in Hamden Ct. on July 31, 2003. Goldman-Rakic first identified the central role of prefrontal cortical circuits in working memory.

"Patricia's work has provided the neural foundation for current studies of molecular influences on cognition and their disruption in cognitive disorders," said Arnsten. "Our ability to apply a scientific approach to perplexing disorders such as schizophrenia is due to her groundbreaking research."

Yang Yang and Min Wang of Yale are lead author and co-senior authors, respectively. Constantinos D. Paspalas, Lu E Jin and Marina R. Picciotto are other Yale authors.

More information: Nicotinic α7 receptors enhance NMDA cognitive circuits in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1307849110

Related Stories

Human cognition depends upon slow-firing neurons

February 20, 2013

Good mental health and clear thinking depend upon our ability to store and manipulate thoughts on a sort of "mental sketch pad." In a new study, Yale School of Medicine researchers describe the molecular basis of this ability—the ...

Recommended for you

Crystal clear images uncover secrets of hormone receptors

July 31, 2015

Many hormones and neurotransmitters work by binding to receptors on a cell's exterior surface. This activates receptors causing them to twist, turn and spark chemical reactions inside cells. NIH scientists used atomic level ...

A cheaper, high-performance prosthetic knee

July 30, 2015

In the last two decades, prosthetic limb technology has grown by leaps and bounds. Today, the most advanced prostheses incorporate microprocessors that work with onboard gyroscopes, accelerometers, and hydraulics to enable ...

Flow means 'go' for proper lymph system development

July 27, 2015

The lymphatic system provides a slow flow of fluid from our organs and tissues into the bloodstream. It returns fluid and proteins that leak from blood vessels, provides passage for immune and inflammatory cells from the ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

VendicarE
5 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2013
Now that this protein is found, we should be able to determine why it is present at such low levels in Republicans.

I look forward to the day when the Conservative brain wasting disease is finally cured and it's high cost on society reduced to zero.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.