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Scientists piece together neural communication puzzle

Medical advances in Europe continue at a rapid-fire pace, and a Belgian-based research team is keeping up by discovering the mechanism that guarantees neural signalling for extensive periods of time, a process that gets muddled in neurological diseases including Parkinson's. T...

Medical advances in Europe continue at a rapid-fire pace, and a Belgian-based research team is keeping up by discovering the mechanism that guarantees neural signalling for extensive periods of time, a process that gets muddled in neurological diseases including Parkinson's. This discovery could lead to a solution for banishing communication glitches between brain cells in the future. The findings of the study, presented in the journal, are funded in part by two EU-projects: NEURORECYCLING and SYNAPSEFUNCTION. Coordinated by the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) in Belgium, NEURORECYCLING ('Maintaining neurotransmission: clathrin-mediated endocytosis and kiss-and-run') clinched a Marie Curie Excellence Grant worth EUR 1.5 million under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) to improve our understanding of the mechanisms of vesicle recycling using morphological and functional assays. SYNAPSEFUNCTION ('Molecular studies of synaptic vesicle recycling in health and disease'), also headed by VIB, is backed with a European Research Council (ERC) grant totalling EUR 1.5 million. Kicked off at the start of 2011, SYNAPSEFUNCTION is investigating novel regulatory mechanisms that operate at the synapse and could potentially regulate synaptic plasticity. Co-author Dr Patrik Verstreken from the VIB Department of Molecular and Developmental Genetics as well as Human Genetics at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, along with colleagues, found the enzyme called 'Skywalker' that controls the delicate balance in communication. Experts say breakdowns in neural communications could trigger neurodegenerative diseases in humans. 'I hope that unravelling the way Skywalker works will not only teach us more about the way neurons communicate with each other but will also lead to new diagnostics and therapies for neurological diseases such as Parkinson's,' Dr Verstreken explains. The impact that brain disorders has on people is huge. At least 20% of patients suffer from metal disturbances, and around 1 billion suffer from the effects of neurological diseases. Over 8% of sufferers living in the West depend on analgesics for support. In order to find a solution to this problem, researchers must better understand neural communication in greater detail. Brain cell communication occurs at the synapses, what experts define as electric signals passing through vesicles (small membrane-enclosed sacs with signalling substances). Once the vesicle releases the signalling substances, another brain cell is activated. But vesicles are reused several times, resulting in the degradation of the proteins they need to perform their function properly. So the release of signalling substances is affected. But what keeps the vesicles running smoothly during the recycling process? An extra step in the recycling process is found within most cells, via endosomes. The vesicle proteins in these special cell compartments are sorted to guarantee the smooth operation of the recycled vesicles. This is where the team's research comes in: they found that the Skywalker enzyme regulates the extra step. The researchers tested fruit flies that lacked Skywalker, and their data show that this lack boosted the signal between two brain cells, increasing the flies' stress levels. Discovering the connection between Skywalker and signals could help lead to new treatment for neurological diseases like Parkinson's. For Parkinson's sufferers in the early stages of the disease, the signals between brain cells are very weak. Dr Verstreken wishes to further pursue this research. However, he recognises that it will be difficult to determine how best to maintain the subtle balance that guarantees the best possible communication. For more information, please visit: Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB): http://www.vib.be/en/Pages/default.aspxCell:http://www.cell.com/ NEURORECYCLING project factsheet on CORDIS, click: here SYNAPSEFUNCTION project factsheet on CORDIS, click: here European Research Council (ERC): http://erc.europa.eu/ Marie Curie External Grants: http://cordis.europa.eu/mariecurie-actions/ext/home.html

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