New 3D image of key brain receptor ‘could unlock fresh epilepsy insights’

A picture of a head (left profile) with multi-coloured cogs to represent memory function. Ref: www.dreamstime.com

Future epilepsy research efforts could be greatly aided by the work of a US team that has been able to successfully create a 3D model of a hugely important receptor in the brain.

Scientists from the Oregon Health & Science University’s Vollum Institute have used a process called X-ray crystallography to provide new insights into how the key NMDA receptor is structured, offering fresh clues to developing drugs to combat neurological conditions affected.

Receptors facilitate chemical and electrical signals between neurons in the brain, allowing them to communicate with each other. The NMDA receptor is one of the most important of these, as it supports neuronal communication that forms the basis of memory, learning and thought.

NMDA receptor problems occur when it is increasingly or decreasingly active and are associated with conditions such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, depression and schizophrenia.

For their new study, the US scientists bounced x-ray beams off the crystals of the receptor, allowing a computer to develop a 3D model based on the results. This model shows where the receptor’s various subunits are located and offers an unprecedented insight into their actions.

Prior to this, medical researchers had only a limited understanding of how these components were arranged in the NMDA receptor complex and how they interacted to carry out specific functions within the brain and central nervous system.

Eric Gouaux, a senior scientist at the Vollum Institute and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, said: “This new detailed view will be invaluable as we try to develop drugs that might work on specific subunits and therefore help fight or cure some of these neurological diseases and conditions.

“Seeing the structure in more detail can unlock some of its secrets – and may help a lot of people.”

Epilepsy affects more than 500,000 people in the UK, with almost one in 100 people living with the condition. Since there is currently no cure, further research into this field is considered a key healthcare priority.

Posted by Bob Jones