How Brain Neurons Work

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Neurons work using chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, which help them to communicate with one another through synaptic gaps. These neurotransmitters concentrates in the synaptic vesicles located at the tip of the teledendron of a neuron axon. Then, voltage-gated ion channels release the neurotransmitters contained in the vesicles, jumping out across the synaptic cleft, or gap, onto the dendrite of another neuron. This takes place in a fraction of a second. A new computer-imaging technique has shown researchers how brain neurons work and communicate with one another. How the brain senses, thinks, learns and emotes depends on how all its nerve cells, or neurons, communicate with one another. And as a result, many laboratories are working feverishly to understand how synapses function—and how psychiatric drugs, which target them, improve patients’ lives.

Neurons synapses are extremely complex, vanishingly small and extraordinarily fast. But thanks to the coordinated efforts of over 1,400 types of molecules, one neuron communicates with another by spitting out chemical neurotransmitters that carry its message across a thin gap to a receptive surface of another neuron. The only way to provide a full account of what goes on at the synapse is to build a computer model that is as realistic as possible. The hope is that running a moment by moment, molecule by molecule simulation will yield novel insights that could then be tested experimentally.