CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- By creating a better way to see molecules at work in living brain cells, researchers affiliated with MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the MIT Department of Chemistry are helping elucidate molecular mechanisms of synapse formation. These studies could also help further understanding of how synapses go awry in developmental diseases such as autism and Fragile X syndrome. The study will appear in the Oct. 7 issue of Cell.
Using the new technique, which is more accurate and sensitive than existing methods, the researchers found that certain protein-protein interactions can affect early phases of synapse maturation. Their work will help scientists understand exactly how two adjacent neurons form a synapsethe meeting point where information transfer among brain cells occurs. This method provides information on the dynamics of proteins in synapses on a minute-by-minute time scale, the researchers said.
"How nascent contacts mature into excitatory or inhibitory synapses is an area of intense interest," said Amar Thyagarajan, Autism Speaks Postdoctoral Fellow in the laboratory of Alice Y. Ting, associate professor of chemistry. "Trans-synaptic signaling complexes seem like a good place to start looking for clues to this process since they mediate signaling into the pre- and post-synaptic cells during this process."
Study co-authors Thyagarajan and Ting are Picower Institute affiliates.
The researchers studied the interaction of the proteins neurexin and neuroligin on the surface of neurons. These adhesion molecules--two of many in the brain that regulate synapse formation, maturation, function and plasticity--not only function as the "glue" that hold neurons together but also mediate signaling so that the appropriate molecular components are recruited for the pre- and postsynaptic cells.
Neurexins and neuroligins can be thought of as a chemical bridge and communication network
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology