Making memories: How one protein does it
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Added: Thu, 08 Mar 2012 16:23:38 UTC
A neuron (red) accumulates messages (green) when treated with BDNF. Credit: Johns Hopkins Medicine
Studying tiny bits of genetic material that control protein formation in the brain, Johns Hopkins scientists say they have new clues to how memories are made and how drugs might someday be used to stop disruptions in the process that lead to mental illness and brain wasting diseases.
In a report published in the March 2 issue of Cell, the researchers said certain microRNAs—genetic elements that control which proteins get made in cells— are the key to controlling the actions of so-called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), long linked to brain cell survival, normal learning and memory boosting.
During the learning process, cells in the brain's hippocampus release BDNF, a growth-factor protein that ramps up production of other proteins involved in establishing memories. Yet, by mechanisms that were never understood, BDNF is known to increase production of less than 4 percent of the different proteins in a brain cell.
That led Mollie Meffert, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of biological chemistry and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to track down how BDNF specifically determines which proteins to turn on, and to uncover the role of regulatory microRNAs.
MicroRNAs are small molecules that bind to and block messages that act as protein blueprints from being translated into proteins. Many microRNAs in a cell shut down protein production, and, conversely, the loss of certain microRNAs can cause higher production of specific proteins.
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