June 30, 2009 Medical scientists at the University of Leicester are investigating how signalling molecules known to control blood pressure and penile erection act to regulate brain function and which have potential for treatments of migraine, chronic pain, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease.
The team is interested in the action of the molecule Nitric Oxide - made famous when it was discovered that its action could be exploited in the treatment of erectile dysfunction, notably by pharmaceutical drugs such as Viagra or Cialis.
The Leicester research is exploring how brain cells communicate by examining the junctions between brain cells – termed the “synapse”. The group, ‘Neurotoxicity at the Synapse’, led by Professor Ian Forsythe in the MRC Toxicology Unit, is interested in the action of Nitric Oxide at these synapses.
Researcher Adam Tozer said: “The brain is a communication station and understanding how the cells ‘talk’ to each other will help in the treatment of neurodegenerative disease.
“Nitric oxide synthesising enzymes are widely expressed in brain cells - prompting the question, why is a molecule that can produce penile erections necessary in the brain?”
Ian Forsythe said “Understanding how brain cells communicate is fundamental to how we think and helps explain the basis of brain diseases”. The research conducted by Dr Joern Steinert and Adam Tozer examines how nitric oxide produced by a cell ‘listening’ to its synapses can change the message received from the incoming ‘talking’ cell.
Adam said it was important to understand how brain cells communicate- and the role of nitric oxide in this process: “In instances where brain cell communication goes wrong, destructive and painful syndromes can occur, such as migraine, chronic pain and epilepsy. Added to this too much nitric oxide can be toxic, and this toxicity has been implicated in the pathology of several neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease”.
He said: “The diseases and syndromes cited are quite varied which reflects the nature of my research. Nitric oxide is obviously a fundamental signalling molecule - from causing erections to facilitating brain function - and understanding its action at a synapse will help us in the treatment of these various conditions. However, the bones of our research will help to shed light on communication in the healthy brain and this will enable a greater understanding of how we think! This is just as important as curing disease and opens up the possibilities of wider benefits.
“It is hoped that this research will go some way to solving the complexity of communication between brain cells, and therefore provide openings for therapeutic strategies against the debilitating conditions mentioned.”
The study in the MRC Toxicology Unit at the University of Leicester is being funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC). Mr Tozer presented his research at the Festival of Postgraduate Research on June 25th at the University of Leicester.
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