Supercomputer study unlocks secrets of brain and safer anesthetics

May 22, 2017, RMIT University
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

Study finds alcohol dampens brain waves associated with decision-making but not motor control

March 15, 2018
We all know that alcohol impairs our judgement, alertness and performance on tasks requiring attention, but the mechanism behind booze's effect on cognition still isn't well-understood. Now, a new study led by psychologists ...

Breakthrough discovery in neurotransmission

March 15, 2018
Samir Haj-Dahmane, Ph.D., senior research scientist at the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions, has discovered how certain neurotransmitters are transported and reach their targets in the brain, which could ...

Research reveals brain mechanism involved in language learning

March 15, 2018
Learning a new language may be more of a science than an art, a University of Sussex study finds.

New research sheds light on underlying cause of brain injury in stroke

March 15, 2018
New research shows how the novel drug QNZ-46 can help to lessen the effects of excess release of glutamate in the brain – the main cause of brain injury in stroke.

Cell therapy could improve brain function for Alzheimer's disease

March 15, 2018
Like a great orchestra, your brain relies on the perfect coordination of many elements to function properly. And if one of those elements is out of sync, it affects the entire ensemble. In Alzheimer's disease, for instance, ...

New tissue technique gives stunning 3-D insights into the human brain

March 15, 2018
Imperial researchers have helped develop a breakthrough imaging technique which reveals the ultra-fine structure of the brain in unprecedented detail.


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.