Reactions are never quite ‘lightning quick’ because impulses flashing along nerve channels must hurdle the tiny gaps, or synapses, between neurons. Chemical messengers – neurotransmitters – are stored at synapses in tiny pods called vesicles, some of which are primed to release their cargo in an instant to speed an arriving impulse across the gap. Recent advances in 3D microscopy have enabled this hair-trigger mechanism to be studied in detail. Scientists used this picture of a section of mouse’s brain to locate the position of synapses, then looked inside them to observe vesicles fusing with neuron membranes and breaking open. Further experiments identified several proteins controlling this process. This research is important to the understanding of a range of illnesses associated with the malfunction of synapses, including Parkinson’s disease.
Written by Mick Warwicker
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