Researchers close knowledge gap on the ‘plasticity’ of brain cell connections
Graduate students from the labs of Professors Georg Zoidl, Canada Research Chair Tier I in Biology & Psychology, and Logan Donaldson in the Faculty of Science have made important new gains in understanding how brain cells communicate with each other through specialized contact sites called electrical synapses.
At an electrical synapse, two brain cells are linked together by a “gap junction”, which contains channels that conduct nerve impulses. Researchers already know that synapses can adapt to become stronger or weaker – called “plasticity”, which is important for memory and learning – and that there are certain proteins that help with this. For instance, previous research has already shown that a protein called connexin36 (Cx36) interacts with an enzyme called calcium/calmodulin-dependent kinase II (CaMKII) to initiate plasticity. Until now, however, the details of this interaction have remained unclear.
“Connexin proteins are the conduit in which electrical signals are passed between neurons and then multiplied vastly by the number of connections between the cells,” says PhD student Ryan Siu, who led the research. “Using sophisticated imaging techniques, I was able to spy on this process in living cells at a distance of less than 10 nanometres, which is comparable to the distance of only 100 atoms laid end-to-end.”
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