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What makes the brain so fast?

Neuron connections in the brain

Surprisingly complex interactions between neurotransmitter receptors and other key proteins help explain the brain’s ability to process information with lightning speed, according to a new study. Scientists at McGill University, working with collaborators at the universities of Oxford and Liverpool, combined experimental techniques to examine fast-acting protein macromolecules, known as AMPA receptors, which are a major player in brain signaling.

Understanding how the brain signals information is a major focus of neuroscientists, since it is crucial to deciphering the nature of many brain disorders, from autism to Alzheimer’s disease. A stubborn problem, however, has been the challenge of studying brain activity that switches on and off on the millisecond time scale.

To tackle this challenge, the research teams in Canada and the U.K. combined multiple techniques to examine the atomic structure of the AMPA receptor and how it interacts with its partner or auxiliary proteins.

“The findings reveal that the interplay between AMPA receptors and their protein partners that modulate them is much more complex than previously thought,” says lead researcher Derek Bowie.

“A computational method called molecular dynamics has been key to understanding what controls these interactions,” says Philip Biggin, one of the senior authors.

“These simulations are effectively a computational microscope that allow us to examine the motions of these proteins in very high detail.”

“A key aspect of this work has been the way that the three groups have used a mix of experimental and theoretical approaches to answer these questions,” says Tim Green.

“Our work, using X-ray crystallography, allowed us to confirm many of the study’s findings by looking at the atomic structure of AMPA receptors.”

“[Through the three labs’ combined efforts], we’ve been able to achieve an important breakthrough in understanding how the brain transmits information so rapidly,” Bowie adds.

“Our next steps will be to understand if these rapid interactions can be targeted for the development of novel therapeutic compounds.”

Dawe, G., Musgaard, M., Aurousseau, M., Nayeem, N., Green, T., Biggin, P., & Bowie, D. (2016). Distinct Structural Pathways Coordinate the Activation of AMPA Receptor-Auxiliary Subunit Complexes Neuron DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2016.01.038

4 responses

  1. Stephanie Milan

    This article makes sense, because the AMPA receptors are stimulates by glutamate and sets into motion depolarization. This in turn creates a chain reaction, which causes changes in the brain. Neurotransmitters come into play when the depolarization opens voltage- dependent gates and releases neurotransmitters. This article is the start of a great psychological development and this could lead to a better understanding what makes the brain so agile.


    April 13, 2016 at 9:28 pm

    • Brilliantly said! Thanks for taking the time to comment.


      April 16, 2016 at 11:16 am

  2. Lindsey Schmitt

    This research is very exciting to me. Alzheimer’s runs heavily in my family so the thought that we can break down what makes the brain work at the speed it does gives me hope that one day soon there will be better therapeutic options for people suffering from brain disorders. From the research I’ve done, the problems with treating Alzheimer’s is finding compounds that can cross the blood-brain barrier. Maybe having a better understanding of how the AMPA receptors bind to proteins and create such quick reactions will help us figure out how to bind antibodies which have been proven to cross the BBB.


    April 30, 2016 at 6:05 pm

    • Yeah, the BBB is a pain when you don’t want it to stop medications, it’s just too good at its job sometimes. But I hope that we find a better way of treating it, or even a cure as well. I’m sorry to hear it runs in your family that is really rough.


      May 1, 2016 at 10:42 am

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