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Researchers add to understanding of how brain cells communicate

An hour from now, will you remember reading this? It all depends on proteins in your brain called NMDA receptors, which allow your neurons to communicate with each other.

Jon W. Johnson, University of Pittsburgh associate professor of neuroscience, and former Pitt graduate student Anqi Qian, now of Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, have discovered how different types of NMDA (N-methyl-d-aspartate) receptors perform varied functions. Their findings are published in the current issue of the Journal of Neuroscience in a paper titled "Permeant Ion Effects on External Mg2+ Block of NR1/2D NMDA Receptors."

Communication between cells in the brain depends on specialized molecular receptors that conduct charged particles, or ions, between the outside and inside of cells. Ions also modify how receptors work. In this paper, Johnson and Qian studied the effects of ions on receptors and found them to vary between different types of receptor molecules. They used computer modeling to show that variation in how ions interact with receptors combined with variation in the structure of receptors is responsible for specialization of receptor function.

"This research helps explain how evolution accomplished a critical goal: producing receptor proteins with finely tuned properties that help optimize brain function," said Johnson.

NR1/2D receptors may be the least-studied of the major NMDA receptor subtypes, but there is increasing evidence that they play important roles in the brain, including the process of long-term depression (which, like long-term potentiation, is thought to be essential for learning and memory) and disease. A better understanding of how NMDA receptors work could lead to better treatments for schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease, and stroke, said Johnson.

Memories are formed by strengthening the connections between brain cells, known as synapses. If you touch a hot stove, the pain signal from your hand and the visual sig
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Source:University of Pittsburgh


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