Scientists have discovered that a small protein called SUMO helps to control the excitability of our brain cells. The researchers hope that their findings could lead to the development of new treatments for diseases such as epilepsy and schizophrenia.
The work, which was partly funded under the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme, is published online by the journal Nature.
Source: European Commission, Research, Information Centre

The millions of nerve cells that make up our brain are connected to each other by synapses. At the synapses, information is chemically transmitted from one nerve cell to another via proteins called receptors. In healthy brains, the synapses are able to modify how much information is transmitted. By contrast in the brains of people with conditions such as epilepsy, the synapses transmit too much information, resulting in over-excitation in the cells.
The kainate receptors play an important role in regulating the amount of information transmitted. In the nerve cell sending the message, they can modify the amount of chemicals released across the synapse, while receptors in the ‘receiving’ nerve cell contribute to the quick transmission of the information.
The researchers found that when the kainate receptor receives a chemical signal, a protein called SUMO attaches itself to the receptor and pulls it out of the synapse. This prevents it from receiving information and so makes the cell less excitable.
‘This work is important because it gives a new perspective and a deeper understanding of how the flow of information between cells in the brain is regulated,’ said Professor Jeremy Henley of Bristol University. ‘It is possible that increasing the amount of SUMO attached to the kainate receptors – which would reduce communication between the cells – could be a way to treat epilepsy by preventing over-excitation.’
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