Researchers Find Key Brain Cell Communications Link

07/01/99    Portland, Ore.

Protein-binding mechanism reveals complexity of synaptic transmission

Inside the complex human brain, cells communicate by synaptic transmissions--electronic signals that jump from one cell to another. Now, a key link in the cellular transmission mechanism has been found and provides researchers with another insight into how the brain works.

The discovery of the binding protein yotiao is reported in the July 2 issue of Science.

"The activity of this very special binding protein is integral to the transmission of messages between brain cells," said John D. Scott, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at Oregon Health Sciences University's Vollum Institute. "The discovery of the way this protein works increases the complexity of the system we're working in."

Yotiao, named for a long and stringy Asian breakfast noodle that it resembles, coordinates the activity that allows a nerve cell to accept a message from another cell. Anchored to a receptor site on a cell membrane, yotiao binds the phosphatases and kinases that are needed to trigger the opening of an ion channel, like opening the door to allow a messenger to come inside.

The discovery of yotiao is important because it specifies a location and gene responsible for healthy nerve cell communication. Conditions like stroke, epilepsy or head trauma can disrupt synaptic transmissions, so understanding yotiao and similar proteins might provide insight to what is going wrong with those patients. Eventually, this understanding could lead to drugs or other treatments that repair or imitate this cell function.

Scott and his team worked closely with a team of scientists at Harvard on identifying yotiao and its functions. "The next step will be to identify any similar proteins and figure out whether each opens doors for particular kinds of messages or if they all open the same door," said Scott.