Researchers work to prevent neurological diseases

Jun 24, 2010
Jan-Ĺke Gustafsson investigates ‘wireless connections’ in the brain by examining how neurons communicate with each other. His team’s findings are detailed in a paper titled "Liver X receptor β and thyroid hormone receptor α in brain cortical layering," appearing in the current online issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Credit: Thomas Campbell

Many diseases of brain function, such as epilepsy and schizophrenia, are caused by problems in how neurons communicate with each other. A University of Houston (UH) researcher and his team are analyzing these commands and connections in an attempt to prevent those diseases.

Dr. Jan-Ĺke Gustafsson, Robert A. Welch Professor in UH's biology and biochemistry department, describes his team's findings in a paper titled "Liver X receptor β and receptor α in cortical layering," appearing in the current online issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world's most-cited multidisciplinary scientific serials.

"The brain works like a computer," said Gustafsson, who also is director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at UH. "We know something about the hard wire, but so far we know nothing about 'wireless connections.' Our work is about how and when the components of the 'computer' are assembled and how the connections between the components are made."

The brain is composed of brain cells, called neurons, which are placed in the correct position in the brain during fetal and infant development. The neurons move with military precision to their correct places just like soldiers in a military parade, except the ranks are referred to as layers. If any of the neurons fail to make the correct move then there will be gaps in the formation of the cortex, which is the outer brain layer. Any distractions that slow down or speed up the neurons will cause a problem with the formation of the cortex. Normally, the neurons obey several commands that come from the environment, hormones and other nearby neurons.

"Like a computer, such connections determine how fast we think and how good our memories are, but also whether we will develop diseases like or ," he said. "Since the commands to the neurons come from hormones and environmental pollutants, it is essential that we understand how the commands are given and received if we are going to prevent those diseases, which appear to be due to the incorrect positioning of neurons."

Liver X and thyroid hormone receptors, which were studied for this paper, have been found to be essential to the developing cortex in mouse embryos and thereby sometimes regulate the same genes. The first part of the paper explains the importance of the liver X receptor, or LXR, which has been shown to be an important factor in brain development and, very likely, in neurological diseases. LXR plays key roles in cholesterol regulation and the central nervous system, regulating brain cholesterol levels, as well as in maintenance of motor neurons in the spinal cord. Gustafsson said the LXR belongs to a gene family called nuclear receptors that is akin to a "military division." If the LXR "commander" is taken away, the neurons under its command do not move. The second part of the paper says another "commander," called a thyroid hormone receptor, can later wake up the that have stopped on the way and make them move again so that the formation of the cortex is restored.

The research team analyzed the architecture of the cerebral cortex in embryonic and neonatal mice, removing different receptors through genetic manipulation. When they want to find out the function of a gene, they use knockout technology to inactivate it, or knock it out. The process involves inserting a mistake into the gene. Since the genes in mice have similar functions in humans, the researchers can obtain information about what causes human diseases.

Explore further: New ALS associated gene identified using innovative strategy

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Mechanism of nicotine's learning effects explored

Apr 04, 2007

While nicotine is highly addictive, researchers have also shown the drug to enhance learning and memory—a property that has launched efforts to develop nicotine-like drugs to treat cognitive deficits in Alzheimer’s and ...

Transplanted stem cells form proper brain connections

Jan 19, 2010

Transplanted neurons grown from embryonic stem cells can fully integrate into the brains of young animals, according to new research in the Jan. 20 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. Healthy brains have s ...

New adult brain cells may be central to lifelong learning

May 23, 2007

The steady formation of new brain cells in adults may represent more than merely a patching up of aging brains, a new study has shown. The new adult brain cells may serve to give the adult brain the same kind of learning ...

The beginnings of the thinking brain

Jun 28, 2006

Oxford researchers have identified the very first neurons in the human cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that sets us apart from all other animals.

Researchers identify brain protein for synapse development

Jan 29, 2010

A new study from UC Davis Health System identifies for the first time a brain protein called SynDIG1 that plays a critical role in creating and sustaining synapses, the complex chemical signaling system responsible for communication ...

Recommended for you

New ALS associated gene identified using innovative strategy

7 hours ago

Using an innovative exome sequencing strategy, a team of international scientists led by John Landers, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School has shown that TUBA4A, the gene encoding the Tubulin Alpha 4A protein, ...

Can bariatric surgery lead to severe headache?

7 hours ago

Bariatric surgery may be a risk factor for a condition that causes severe headaches, according to a study published in the October 22, 2014, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurol ...

Bipolar disorder discovery at the nano level

8 hours ago

A nano-sized discovery by Northwestern Medicine scientists helps explain how bipolar disorder affects the brain and could one day lead to new drug therapies to treat the mental illness.

Brain simulation raises questions

11 hours ago

What does it mean to simulate the human brain? Why is it important to do so? And is it even possible to simulate the brain separately from the body it exists in? These questions are discussed in a new paper ...

Human skin cells reprogrammed directly into brain cells

11 hours ago

Scientists have described a way to convert human skin cells directly into a specific type of brain cell affected by Huntington's disease, an ultimately fatal neurodegenerative disorder. Unlike other techniques ...

User comments : 0