Researchers have identified a master regulatory molecule that is responsible for triggering the remodeling of neuronal connections that is critical for learning. Malfunctioning of the connection-remodeling machinery that they identified may also play a role in mental retardation, schizophrenia, and drug addiction.
Thus, said the researchers, knowledge of the machinery could lead to insights into those disorders. Peter Penzes and colleagues published their findings in the November 21, 2007, issue of the journal Neuron, published by Cell Press. In their experiments, the researchers sought to understand the biological machinery controlling the enlargement of mushroom-like structures called dendritic spines on neurons. Such spines are the receiving stations for neurotransmitters—signaling chemicals that one neuron launches to trigger a nerve impulse in its neighbor. During learning, these spines strengthen signaling between neurons during the process of laying down memory pathways in the brain. Spine structure can also be involved in neurological disorders.
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