[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 14-Feb-2003
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Contact: Monica Amarelo
mamarelo@aaas.org

Ginger Pinholster
gpinhols@aaas.org

Prior to 13 February, 202-326-6440
As of 13 February, 303-228-8301

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Never too late to boogie: Nerve cells still active in 'mature' brain

DENVER, CO - Films that offer the mind a chance to watch the brain at work will be shown during a 14 February panel discussion at the AAAS Annual Meeting titled, "How and Why Brain Cells Boogie: Motility in Neural Development."

Recent advances in high-resolution microscopy and image analysis have made it possible for researchers to "look under the hood of the molecular engine," to view nerve cells and the interaction among components of their basic cytoskeletal structures and among nerve cells in general. Study of the images has led to some unexpected findings, particularly regarding the adult brain, according to Shelley Halpain, associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA.

"We have found that the synapses themselves are motile and undergo metamorphoses that we consider to be very surprising in a mature person," Halpain said. "The idea that the mature brain is plastic is quite new. If we could find out more about this capacity for restructuring and reorganization, we could probably harness that information to promote recovery from diseases that involve synaptic abnormalities." Halpain added that the brain cells of children and young adults are considerably more active than those of older adults.

Neurons-the brain has billions of them-first migrate from their place of birth to appropriate locations within the brain. Each neuron then grows a long axon, which transmits messages from the neuron to other nerve cells, using chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Dendrites, which also extend out from the new neuron, are charged with bringing messages to the neuron from other nerve cells. The tentacle-like axons and dendrites form synapses with other axons and dendrites, eventually "wiring up" the brain.

Halpain and two colleagues will discuss the role of "motility," or movement, in the development of neurons, as well as the way in which the nerve cells' "signaling machinery" attracts or repulses the cells' growth cones, which ultimately decide the direction in which the neuron will grow. This may someday have important applications for addressing conditions such as spinal injury, as scar tissue seems to emit chemical signals that repel neurons as their axons approach damaged tissue.

"We can now watch the underlying molecular machinery at work," said Paul Forscher, an associate professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale University. "You can watch the growth cone make a guidance decision-make a turn, for example."

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Advance interviews possible upon request.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science (www.sciencemag.org). AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves some 265 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of one million. The non-profit AAAS (www.aaas.org) is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, www.eurekalert.org, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

MEDIA NOTE: Halpain, Forscher and their colleague Frank Gertler, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will participate in a seminar titled, "How and Why Brain Cells Boogie: Motility in Neural Development," during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Denver, at 8:30 a.m. Mountain Time, Friday 14 February, in Room A-205 on the Main Level of the Colorado Convention Center. Press registration is located in the AAAS Press Center in Room C-101 of the Colorado Convention Center.


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