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Electrical Activity Alters Language Used By Nerve Cells

University of California, San Diego biologists have shown that the chemical language with which neurons communicate depends on the pattern //of electrical activity in the developing nervous system. The findings suggest that modification of nerve activity could have potential as a treatment for a wide range of brain disorders.

In the study, published this week in the early on-line edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the biologists showed that, contrary to the prevailing viewpoint, neurotransmitters—the chemical language of nerve cells—and receptors—the proteins that receive and respond to neurotransmitters—are not specified by a rigid genetic program. Altering nerve activity during development determines the “mother tongue” nerve cells use to communicate.

“Most cognitive disorders, such as depression, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease, involve problems with neurotransmitters or neurotransmitter receptors,” said Nicholas Spitzer, a professor of biology and the senior author of the study. “If modifying electrical activity in the adult brain can alter neurotransmitters and receptors similarly to the way we have discovered in the developing frog nervous system, it could provide a promising approach to treating these disorders.”

In vertebrates including frogs and humans, nerves communicate with muscles by releasing a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Spitzer and Laura Borodinsky, who was an assistant project scientist working with Spitzer when she performed the research, wanted to know if genetics is the only factor responsible for the selection of acetylcholine as the language used in nerve to muscle communication, or if other factors could play a role.

To find out, the researchers used drugs to increase and decrease the electrical activity in nerve cells of frog embryos. These changes in activity changed the identity of the neurotransmitter produced by the nerve cells. Because th
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