Human brains and computers have much in common. They both use electrical signals to relay information. But, brains are much more complex than a motherboard.
In the journal Neuron, Dr. Kartik Venkatachalam, assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology, provides new information on how brain cells process information. The study was featured on the cover of the journal.
Venkatachalam, who is also on the faculty of The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston, reports that the brain does much more than simply relay electrical charges among nerve cells, or neurons.
“It also shapes the power of those transmissions along inter-cellular connections called synapses,” said Venkatachalam, the study’s senior author. “And, we have identified a molecular mechanism that does just that. It requires a TRPV cation channel that is involved in both synaptic development and neurotransmission.”
With the aid of cutting-edge genetic tools available to study synaptic function in fruit fly neurons, Venkatachalam and his colleagues observed how the TRPV channel allows brain cells to tune synaptic transmission.
Venkatachalam’s team showed that deleting the TRPV channel from fly neurons diminished synaptic development and neurotransmission; whereas, enhancing channel activity increased synaptic transmission. The scientists were also able to restore lost synaptic activity in the mutant flies by introducing human TRPV1, which points to remarkable conservation in the function of these channels between flies and humans.
Venkatachalam said a better understanding of synaptic function may aid efforts to develop treatments for neurodegenerative conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer’s disease.
Also contributing to the paper from UTHealth were Dr. Ching On-Wong, a postdoctoral research fellow and the paper’s lead author, and Yufang Chao, a senior research assistant.
—Rob Cahill, Office of Public Affairs, Media Relations