Finally seeing brain cells ‘talk’ could unlock long-needed answers to Alzheimer’s

4 Sep 2018

Image: Tatiana Shepeleva/Shutterstock

Researchers have finally been able to observe brain cells ‘talk’ to each other, paving the way for greater understanding of neurological diseases.

For years, scientists have been left in the dark about how exactly neurotransmissions work. Now, though, a major new breakthrough has allowed an international team of researchers to see brain cells ‘talking’ in bright, vivid colour.

With findings published in Nature Biotechnology, the new lab technique showed up brain cells in images as fluorescent light.

While an important breakthrough in itself, the team believes it could be integral to answering some questions about brain and neurological diseases – such as Alzheimer’s disease – that have mystified scientists for years.

“Before, we didn’t have any way to understand how [such neurotransmissions] work,” said researcher J Julius Zhu of the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

“In the case of Alzheimer’s, we spent billions of dollars and we have almost no effective treatment … Now, for the first time, we can see what is happening.”

A web of green, fluorescent neurons against a black background.

The new fluorescence sensor lights up neurons when they talk. Image: Zhu Lab/University of Virginia School of Medicine

The drugs don’t work

To demonstrate its effectiveness, the team used the technique to visualise a poorly understood neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. This transmitter plays a vital role in determining how we behave in day-to-day life because it affects our memory and mood, and is directly linked to symptoms of Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, depression and other conditions.

To combat this, existing drugs for Alzheimer’s usually inhibit acetylcholinesterase – an enzyme that degrades acetylcholine – to boost the effect of diminishing acetylcholine released in the brain.

The only problem, however, is that current science doesn’t really understand how the drug works as there has been no way to determine just how much inhibition is needed.

“These drugs are not very effective,” Zhu said. “They only offer a minor improvement and once you stop the drug, [the symptoms] just seem much worse.

“So, probably in trying to treat these patients, you temporarily enhance them but you actually make them even worse.”

The hope is that by now being able to see acetylcholine and other neurotransmitters in action in fluorescent colour, a doctor might be able to establish a baseline for good health and work from there to treat neurological diseases.

“We want to first measure how [the neurotransmitters] normally do the job. We’ve already found that there are acetylcholine transmissions very different from what we would expect,” Zhu added.

“Then, we also want to find how the patient differs. That comparison will provide us important answers.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic