Technique visualizes neuron communication

August 24, 2018 by Josh Barney, University of Virginia
UVA pharmacology researcher J. Julius Zhu and colleagues have pioneered a new technique to visualize cell communication within the brain. Credit: UVA Health System

Scientists have developed a way to see brain cells talk – to actually see neurons communicate in bright, vivid color. The new lab technique is set to provide long-needed answers about the brain and neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia and depression. Those answers will facilitate new and vastly improved treatments for diseases that have largely resisted scientists' efforts to understand them.

"Before, we didn't have any way to understand how [such neurotransmissions] work," said researcher J. Julius Zhu of the University of Virginia School of Medicine. "In the case of Alzheimer's in particular, we spent billions of dollars and we have almost no effective treatment. … Now, for the first time, we can see what is happening."

To demonstrate the technique's effectiveness, Zhu's team in Charlottesville and colleagues in China have used it to visualize a poorly understood neurotransmitter called acetylcholine.

"Acetylcholine has an important role in how we behave because it affects our memory and mood," Zhu explained. "It affects Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, emotions, depression, all kinds of emotion-related diseases and mental problems." (Acetylcholine also plays critical roles elsewhere in the body, such as regulating in the pancreas and controlling stress and blood pressure.)

Drugs designed to combat Alzheimer's disease actually inhibit acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that degrades acetylcholine, to boost the effect of diminishing acetylcholine released in the brain, Zhu said. But doctors haven't fully understood how the drugs work, and there's been no way to determine just how much inhibition is needed.

"These drugs are not very effective," he said. "They only offer a minor improvement, and once you stop the drug, [the symptoms] just seem much worse. So probably in trying to treat these patients, you temporarily enhance them but you actually make them even worse."

By being able to see acetylcholine and other neurotransmitters in action in fluorescent color, doctors will be able to establish a baseline for good health and then work to restore that in patients.

"We want to first measure how [the neurotransmitters] normally do the job. We've already found that there are transmissions very different from what we would expect," said Zhu, of UVA's Department of Pharmacology. "Then we also want to find how the patient differs. That comparison will provide us important answers."

The researchers have published their findings in the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology.

Explore further: How drugs can help your brain encode memories

More information: Miao Jing et al. A genetically encoded fluorescent acetylcholine indicator for in vitro and in vivo studies, Nature Biotechnology (2018). DOI: 10.1038/nbt.4184

Related Stories

How drugs can help your brain encode memories

January 14, 2016
Medical researchers at the University of Bristol have uncovered a fundamental mechanism that explains the interaction between brain state and the neural triggers responsible for learning. The discoveries, made by researchers ...

Pathway of Alzheimer's degeneration discovered

July 5, 2018
Scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (The Neuro) of McGill University have used a unique approach to track brain degeneration in Alzheimer's disease, uncovering a pathway through which degeneration ...

New study on nicotinic receptors and LT memory paves way for targeted dementia therapy

March 27, 2018
A new University of Bristol study, which identifies how acetylcholine impacts learning and memory by acting at different receptors, could prove significant in the drive to develop more targeted and effective therapies for ...

Potential Alzheimer's medication shows promise in mouse model of neurodegenerative disease

December 19, 2016
Memory loss and other cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer's disease are attributed, in part, to the degeneration of acetylcholine-producing neurons. Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors are a common treatment for patients with Alzheimer's; ...

New drug SAK3 may offer hope to Alzheimer's disease patients

January 26, 2017
Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that plays an important role in controlling attention and cognition. Acetylcholine system dysfunction is believed to be one of the causes of Alzheimer's disease (AD) and vascular ...

Study provides potential explanation for mechanisms of associative memory

December 13, 2011
Researchers from the University of Bristol have discovered that a chemical compound in the brain can weaken the synaptic connections between neurons in a region of the brain important for the formation of long-term memories. ...

Recommended for you

Exercise may delay cognitive decline in people with rare Alzheimer's disease

September 25, 2018
For individuals carrying a genetic mutation that causes Alzheimer's disease, engaging in at least 2.5 hours of physical activity per week may have beneficial effects on markers of Alzheimer's disease brain changes and may ...

Scientists reveal ground-breaking plan to target cause of Alzheimer's disease

September 24, 2018
A breakthrough has been made in the fight against Alzheimer's disease—researchers have found a new way to target the toxic particles that destroy healthy brain cells.

A biomarker in the brain's circulation system may be Alzheimer's earliest warning

September 24, 2018
USC scientists say Alzheimer's could be diagnosed earlier if scientists focus on an early warning within the brain's circulation system.

In landmark study, doctors say test identifies people most likely to get Alzheimer's

September 24, 2018
The beginning was the worst. It frustrated Janet Parkerson when her father started to forget what he had done that day or the day before.

Study clarifies ApoE4's role in dementia

September 20, 2018
ApoE4, a protein linked to both Alzheimer's disease and a form of dementia caused by damage of blood vessels in the brain, increases the risk of cognitive impairment by reducing the number and responsiveness of blood vessels ...

Machine learning IDs markers to help predict Alzheimer's

September 19, 2018
Nearly 50 million people worldwide have Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia. These irreversible brain disorders slowly cause memory loss and destroy thinking skills, eventually to such an extent that self-care ...

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.