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How nerve cells stay in shape

Nerve cells store and transmit information via special contact sites called synapses. Synapses also play a role in determining what we remember and what we forget. When we learn, both the structure and the functional characteristics of these contact sites change. Scientists are only now beginning to understand the molecular processes which cause that change.

Researchers led by Michael Kiebler at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen (now at the Center for Brain Research, University of Vienna) have identified a protein that is essential for the maintenance of synapses: if the protein Staufen2 is removed in a nerve cell, the cell loses a large portion of its synapses. Moreover, signalling at the remaining contact sites is significantly impaired. Staufen proteins are involved in the transport of molecular blueprints (mRNAs) to specific locations in a cell. The disturbance in the structure and function of synapses without Staufen2 protein suggests that mRNA transport to synapses is crucial to their maintenance and the storage of memory (Journal of Cell Biology, January 17, 2006).

Nerve cells receive signals from other nerve cells via dendrites, which branch out like the branches of a tree. The cell-body receives incoming information, and transmits it further through the axon, a long projection from the cell. Nerve cells make contact with each other at highly-specialised locations known as synapses. There, information is not only passively transmitted. Synapses can, depending on input, change and in this way store new memory.

A synapse has two parts: one originates from the axon of the sending cell, the other, from a dendrite of the receiving cell (see image 1). Both parts comprise a special set of molecules, which clearly distinguishes them from the rest of the cell. Furthermore, these contact sites can change structure and characteristics with incoming signals. In dendrites, these changes can only happen when certain pr
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Source:Max-Planck-Gesellschaft


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