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New Light on Working of Brain Networks

“Guanfacine can strengthen the connectivity of these networks by keeping these channels closed, thus improving working memory and reducing distractibility,” she said. “This is the first time we have observed the mechanism of action of a psychotropic medication in such depth, at the level of ion channels.”

Arnsten said the excessive opening of HCN channels might underlie many lapses in higher cognitive function. Stress, for example, appears to flood PFC neurons with cAMP, which opens HCN channels, temporarily disconnects networks, and impairs higher cognitive abilities.

There is also evidence that this pathway may not be properly regulated with advancing age, resulting in destruction of cAMP. The dysregulation of the pathway may contribute to increased forgetfulness and susceptibility to distraction as we grow older.

The research is also relevant to common disorders such as ADHD, which is associated with weaker regulation of attention and behavior. ADHD is highly heritable, and some patients with ADHD may have genetic changes in molecules that weaken the production of norepinephrine. Treatments for ADHD all enhance stimulation of the norepinephrine receptors.

These new data also have important implications for the researchers’ studies of more severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which can involve mutations of a molecule called DISC1 (Disrupted in Schizophrenia) that normally regulates cAMP. Loss of function of DISC1 in patients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder would increase vulnerability to cortical network disconnection and profound PFC deficits. This may be especially problematic during exposure to even mild stress, which may explain the frequent worsening of symptoms following exposure to stress. “We find it remarkable to relate a genetic mutation in patients to the regulation by an ion channel of PFC neuronal networks,” said Arnsten.

Co-authors include Min Wang, Br
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