How cells in the brain communicate with one another underlies everything we think, learn and remember. It’s a huge area of research with implications for human health and disease.
Greg Lnenicka, a professor of biological sciences at the University at Albany, seeks to understand the tiniest details of how neurons code and share information. He says the structure involved — the narrow gap between two neurons called a synapse — is probably the most studied structure in the brain.
“It’s basically the gatekeeper of the flow of information in the brain,” he says. Synapses are the target of many drugs and dysfunctional synapses are the basis of many diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and schizophrenia.
The National Science Foundation has funded Lnenicka’s research for over twenty years. He’s long been interested in how synapses get stronger with use, which is the basis of learning and memory.
But now, with his latest grant from the agency, he’s looking at the other side of the coin — how synapses stay stable. “What we do is basic research,” he says. “In order to understand what’s going on in disease, we need to know what’s going on normally.”
Lnenicka uses a variety of research techniques, including electrophysiology, imaging techniques, and molecular genetics. He uses a simple organism — a fruit fly — and makes use of genetic mutants to learn which molecules play the most critical roles.
One protein — a calcium-activate potassium channel — seems to constantly monitor neuronal activity and make adjustments to maintain synaptic stability, Lnenicka says. The same protein was recently discovered in mammals where it may play a similar role.