Looking at the brain, neuron by neuron

Looking at the brain, neuron by neuron

Summary: Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have developed new techniques for studying the brain's chemistry, neuron by neuron.

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We still don't know much about how interact the billions of cells in our brains. But now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have developed new techniques for studying the brain's chemistry, neuron by neuron. With these techniques, they focused on the distribution of important molecules, such as vitamin E, and "explore the chemical messengers behind thought, memory and emotion." They've started with sea slugs, whose simple brains contain 10,000 neurons. Then they moved to insects possessing one million neurons and are now studying mice having 100 million neurons. And they hope that their research will lead to a better understanding of how our brain functions.

Here are some excerpts of the UIUC news release about these research projects which combine analytical chemistry and cellular neurobiology.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed tools for studying the chemistry of the brain, neuron by neuron. The analytical techniques can probe the spatial and temporal distribution of biologically important molecules, such as vitamin E, and explore the chemical messengers behind thought, memory and emotion.
"In most organ tissues of the body, adjacent cells do not have significant differences in their chemical contents," said Jonathan Sweedler, director of the Biotechnology Center at the U. of I. "In the brain, however, chemical differences between neurons are critical for their operation, and the connections between cells are crucial for encoding information or controlling functions."

Using these techniques, the researchers were able to perform cellular profiling and to follow the release of chemicals in the brain. They also used ion mass spectrometry (IMS) to identify and map the presence of vitamin E in the membranes of isolated neurons.

"To our surprise, we found that vitamin E was not distributed uniformly in the neuronal membrane," Sweedler said. "Instead, vitamin E was concentrated in the neuron right where it extends to connect with other neurons."
"Our technique doesn’t tell us how or why vitamin E is distributed this way, but suggests that it is under active control and tight regulation," Sweedler said. "Understanding the chemistry that takes place within and between neurons, including small molecules like vitamin E, will no doubt lead to a better understanding of brain function in healthy and diseased brains."

This research work has been published by the Journal of the American Chemical Society (Volume 127, Issue 35, Pages 12152-12153, September 7, 2005) under the name "Vitamin E Imaging and Localization in the Neuronal Membrane." Here is a link to the abstract.

And for more information, you can look at the list of publications of the Sweedler Research Group.

Sources: James E. Kloeppel, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, August 31, 2005; and various web sites

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