By Lea Sparkman
Scientists at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have uncovered details about the structure of a two-part protein that may fuel the development of new drugs for mental disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and anxiety.
According to an article on the SLAC website, neurons, or nerve cells, communicate with one another by releasing small receptacles of neurotransmitters, or signaling chemicals. With the help of binding proteins, these neurotransmitters are then absorbed by other neurons. Such inter-neuron communication allows an individual’s nervous system to react and respond to its surroundings.
The two proteins involved in the transfer of neurotransmitters are called SNARE and synaptotagmin 1, and together they form a protein complex. A small-scale rise in calcium concentration signals the complex to start the transfer between two neurons. Once signaled, SNARE and synaptotagmin fuse the neurons’ membranes together, allowing for a “gun-shot” release of neurotransmitters from one neuron to another.
Previous studies across several decades have analyzed SNARE and synaptotagmin 1 individually, but scientists were not aware of the proteins’ interactions until this most recent study, which involved growing and analyzing crystals of the protein complex.
Because SNARE and synaptotagmin 1 are already bound together by the time they arrive at the neuron membrane, they allow for an extremely quick signal release time and are the reason that the nervous system can react quite rapidly to its surrounding environment. These in-depth findings about how neurons relay signals may potentially reveal remedies to mental disorders like schizophrenia.
In the future, researchers hope to analyze the significance and cooperation of other proteins involved in the release of neurotransmitters as well.
“There are many other factors interacting with this system,” said Axel Brunger, principal investigator for the research and professor of molecular and cellular physiology, neurology and neurological sciences and photon science at the Stanford School of Medicine. “This [most recent finding] is by no means the end of the story.”
Contact Lea Sparkman at 16lsparkman ‘at’ castilleja.org.