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NIH researchers discover how brain cells change their tune

Zu-Hang Sheng, Ph.D., a senior principal investigator and the chief of the Synaptic Functions Section at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) said,  “We may have answered a long-standing, fundamental question about how brain cells communicate with each other in a variety of voice tones.”

Brain cells talk to each other in a variety of tones. Sometimes they speak loudly but other times struggle to be heard.

Researchers showed that brief bursts of chemical energy coming from rapidly moving power plants, called mitochondria, may tune brain cell communication.

The network of nerve cells throughout the body typically controls thoughts, movements and senses by sending thousands of neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, at communication points made between the cells called synapses.

Neurotransmitters are sent from tiny protrusions found on nerve cells, called presynaptic boutons.  Boutons are aligned, like beads on a string, on long, thin structures called axons.  They help control the strength of the signals sent by regulating the amount and manner that nerve cells release transmitters.

Mitochondria are known as the cell’s power plant because they use oxygen to convert many of the chemicals cells use as food into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the main energy that powers cells.  This energy is essential for nerve cell survival and communication.  Previous studies showed that mitochondria can rapidly move along axons, dancing from one bouton to another.

In this study, published in Cell Reports, Dr. Sheng and his colleagues show that these moving power plants may control the strength of the signals sent from boutons.

Watch video of mitochondrial power plants (red) pass by synaptic boutons (green) as they move through a nerve cell axon

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