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The synapse is a shotgun

Researchers have constructed a new detailed map of the three-dimensional terrain of a synapse -- the junction between neurons which are critical for communication in the brain and nervous system. The "nano-map," which shows the tiny spines and valleys resolved at nanometer scale, or one-billionth of a meter, has already proven its worth in changing scientists' views of the synaptic landscape.

Using the map as a guide, the research team, led by Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Terrence Sejnowski, has developed a biologically accurate computer simulation of synaptic function. The simulation combines 3-D electron microscope maps with computer simulation and physiological measurements from real neurons. Their in silico modeling indicates that the synapse may behave more like a shotgun than a rifle when it comes to firing the neurotransmitters involved in neuronal communication.

The textbook view of the synapse describes it as a place where rifle-like volleys of neurotransmitter are launched from one defined region of the sending neuron to another defined target on the receiving neuron. In contrast, the new data suggest that synapse can act like a shotgun, firing buckshot-like bursts of neurotransmitter to reach receptors arrayed beyond the known receiving sites. The researchers say that right now they have little idea of how the synaptic shotgun functions.

The research was published in the July 15, 2005, issue of the journal Science. Sejnowski, who is at The Salk Institute, and colleagues Darwin Berg and Mark Ellisman, both of the University of California, San Diego, led the research team, which also included co-authors from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.

In the collaborative studies, Ellisman and his colleagues first used electron microscopic tomography -- the microscopist's equivalent of a CAT scan -- to create a detailed 3-D map of the synapse of a chick ciliary ganglion. This ganglion is a clus
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Source:Howard Hughes Medical Institute


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