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A new nuance to neurons

pecialized cells with very long extensions sometimes a meter or more in length.

Down these spaghetti-like nerve fibers travel electrical impulses, which will cause the neuron to release some of these tiny vesicle sacs, spilling their chemical contents into the synapse, a gap between the nerve ending and the next neuron. The chemicals then seep over to the adjoining neuron, sometimes triggering it to fire in turn.

This basic game of neurotransmission is played trillions of times over by the 10 billion or so neurons in the human brain. Some neurons are so active that they fire as many as 100 times a second, requiring mechanisms to sustain these high rates.

The vesicles play a crucial role in this process because they allow neurons to fire when ready. Neurons use the vesicles to package the chemicals and transport them in advance so that they can release as soon as an electrical impulse arrives. Since the release sites are far away from the cell center, the vesicles must recycle locally to maintain high rates of release.

For years, scientists have observed that while all vesicles appear identical, they actually exist in two different pools. The smaller pool, found at the extreme land's end of the neuron, holds the ones that release neurotransmitters when an electrical impulse arrives. After release, the vesicles are quickly recycled for continued use, and for this reason scientists have called this the "recycling" pool of vesicles.

The second pool of vesicles can be much larger, accounting for up to 80 percent of all the vesicles at a synapse. Surprisingly, these vesicles do not respond to electrical impulses. Instead they sit dormant when the signal arrives and, because of this, scientists have dubbed this the "resting" pool.

"It's not clear what they respond to or what their function is," Edwards said.

Because the vesicles in the two pools appear to be identical under the microscope, nobody knew if the

Contact: Jason Socrates Bardi
University of California - San Francisco

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