The discovery of a protein’s role in regulating brain cell “branching” could lead to new treatments for memory and learning disabilities.
American researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey have discovered that the protein, cypin, could be a new target for drugs that treat brain disorders including Alzheimer’s and fetal alcohol syndrome.
Neuron branching, more formally known as dendrite growth, is an important process in normal brain function and is thought to increase as people learn and decrease with some neurological diseases.
“The identification of cypin and understanding how it works in the brain is particularly exciting since it opens up new avenues for the treatment of serious neurological disorders,” says researcher Bonnie Firestein. “This paves the way to designing new drugs that could target this protein molecule.”
Firestein first identified and isolated cypin in 1999 during her postdoctoral research.
She is now focusing on how it works in the hippocampus, a structure in the brain associated with the regulation of emotions and memory
“We knew that cypin existed elsewhere in the body where it performs other functions, but no one knew why it was present in the brain,” she says.
Firestein and colleagues have now determined that cypin in the brain works as an enzyme that helps shape neuron “trees.”
“One end of a neuron looks like a tree and, in the hippocampus, cypin controls the growth of its branches,” Firestein explains. “An increase in the number of branches provides additional sites where a neuron can receive information that it can pass along, enhancing communication.”
The researchers found that stimulating neurons caused an increase in cypin and dendrite growth.
They also found that reducing the expression of cypin and caused a decrease in branching.
They think that cypin acts as glue that cements other molecules together into long chain structures that extend through the branches of a dendrite.
“Cypin works on tubulin, a protein that is a structural building block of the dendrite skeleton,” says Firestein. “If you just take our purified protein and mix it with tubulin in a test tube, the cypin on its own will actually cause these skeletal structures to grow.”