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Winner of Nobel Prize for Medicine talks at CIMA about the latest advances in Neurology

Professor Erwin Neher researches the biophysical and molecular principles of information flow between neurons

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From left to right: José Masdeu, Erwin Neher, Isabel Pérez-Otaño and John Wesseling. FOTO: Manuel Castells
27/05/05 13:41 Mª Pilar Huarte

Professor Erwin Neher, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 1991, spoke at a seminar of the area of Neurosciences in the Applied Medical Research Center (CIMA) at the University of Navarra. He won the prize for his discoveries about the function of ion channels in the cell membrane in the brain (Ions are atoms or groups of atoms which acquire an electric charge when they lose or gain one or more electrons). At present he is studying synapses, minute structures which connect neurons together. Advances in this area will make it possible to know more about the damage which causes diseases like schizophrenia, Parkinson"s and Alzheimer"s disease.

As the brain is made up of numerous biological circuits, one key question is how these channels process information. To answer this, Professor Neher studies the way in which the synaptic connections between neurons direct information flow through neuronal networks. "Despite the enormous scientific advances that have been made, the way the brain functions is still a mystery, and this remains one of the most fascinating questions of the modern age," declared Professor Neher.

Communication between neurons in milliseconds

The information in the neuron is usually codified through electrical signals which pass through the neuronal membrane. Chemical neurotransmitters pass this information on from one neuron to another. This process takes place in the synapsis, and is one-directional: it moves from the pre-synaptic neuron to the receptor neuron (or post-synaptic neuron).

For years, scientists thought that the synapsis only transmitted simple signals from one neuron to another, but "recent studies have shown that the synapses play an active role in information processing, modulating and redirecting the information flow through neuronal circuits." Professor Neher"s most recent research has focused on gaining a greater understanding of the biophysical and molecular principles that allow the synapses to fulfill this function. With this aim in mind, he has developed a range of pioneering techniques in biophysics and molecular biology which make it possible to "study how the freeing of neurotransmitters in the pre-synaptic neuron is controlled dynamically in timescales somewhere between milliseconds and seconds."