Supercomputer study unlocks secrets of brain and safer anesthetics

May 22, 2017, RMIT University
brain
Credit: public domain

Researchers have used a supercomputer to show how proteins in the brain control electrical signals, in a breakthrough that could lead to safer and more effective drugs and anaesthetics.

In the seven-year study just released, RMIT University researchers in Melbourne, Australia - led by Professor Toby Allen and including Dr Bogdan Lev and Dr Brett Cromer - modelled how protein "switches" are activated by binding molecules to generate electrical signals in the brain.

The findings, which involved hundreds of millions of computer processing hours, pave the way for understanding how brain activity can be controlled by existing and , including anaesthetics.

General anaesthetics work by blocking "on" switches and enhancing "off" switches in the brain, leading to loss of sensation and the ability to feel pain.

"Even though anaesthetics have been used for more than 150 years, scientists still don't know how they work at the molecular level," Allen said.

"General anaesthetics are a mainstay of modern medicine, but have a small safety margin, requiring skilled anaesthetists for their safe use. They may also have long-term effects on brain function in both newborns and the elderly.

"Our study has uncovered details of the switching mechanism that will help in the design of new anaesthetics that are safer, both immediately and for long-term function, as well as more effective and more targeted use of anaesthetics."

Allen said the computer models, using the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative, provided an unprecedented level of understanding of the nervous system.

"These protein switches, called ligand-gated ion channels, are primary electrical components of our nervous systems. Understanding how they work is one of the most important questions in biology," he said.

"Our computer models show something that's never been seen before. We have discovered how ion channels bind molecules, such as neurotransmitters, and are activated to generate in neurons.

"We are now using these models to make important predictions for how the binding of drugs and anaesthetics may control electrical signalling."

The findings also unlock a range of other potential applications including understanding how ion channel mutations cause diseases like epilepsy and startle disease, as well as new treatments for anxiety, alcoholism, chronic pain, stroke and other neural conditions.

And because all living organisms share similar proteins, the findings could also open up possibilities for safer and more effective insecticides and anti-parasitics, while the computer modelling developed in the study reduces the need to test new drugs on animals.

The study was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, as well as the Medical Advances Without Animals Trust.

The findings have been published this month in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Explore further: New insights into pain relief drugs

More information: Bogdan Lev et al, String method solution of the gating pathways for a pentameric ligand-gated ion channel, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1617567114

Related Stories

New insights into pain relief drugs

July 4, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Scientists from the Research School of Biology have opened the door to a new world of pain treatments with their discovery of the exact way that pain relief drugs, such as anaesthetics, work on the body.

Allen Cell Types Database updated with new data and models

March 17, 2017
The Allen Institute for Brain Science has released additional data and computer models of cell activity for inclusion in the Allen Cell Types Database: a publicly available tool for researchers to explore and understand the ...

Non-cocaine, topical anaesthetics can kill pain when repairing skin wounds

July 27, 2011
While some pain killers need to be injected into the damaged tissue in order to work, topical anaesthetics only need to be spread on the surface. The earliest examples of "topical" anaesthetics contained cocaine, but now ...

Recommended for you

Wiring diagram of the brain provides a clearer picture of brain scan data

December 14, 2018
Already affecting more than five million Americans older than 65, Alzheimer's disease is on the rise and expected to impact more than 13 million people by 2050. Over the last three decades, researchers have relied on neuroimaging—brain ...

Scientists identify method to study resilience to pain

December 14, 2018
Scientists at the Yale School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Connecticut Healthcare System have successfully demonstrated that it is possible to pinpoint genes that contribute to inter-individual differences in pain.

Parents' brain activity 'echoes' their infant's brain activity when they play together

December 13, 2018
When infants are playing with objects, their early attempts to pay attention to things are accompanied by bursts of high-frequency activity in their brain. But what happens when parents play together with them? New research, ...

In the developing brain, scientists find roots of neuropsychiatric diseases

December 13, 2018
The most comprehensive genomic analysis of the human brain ever undertaken has revealed new insights into the changes it undergoes through development, how it varies among individuals, and the roots of neuropsychiatric illnesses ...

Researchers discover abundant source for neuronal cells

December 13, 2018
USC researchers seeking a way to study genetic activity associated with psychiatric disorders have discovered an abundant source of human cells—the nose.

Researchers find the cause of and cure for brain injury associated with gut condition

December 13, 2018
Using a mouse model of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)—a potentially fatal condition that causes a premature infant's gut to suddenly die—researchers at Johns Hopkins say they have uncovered the molecular causes of the ...

0 comments

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.