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Brain scientists studying the molecular mechanisms of memory have earned a $1.5 million grant and the second consecutive designation for the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as a Silvio A. Conte Center for Neuroscience Research by the National Institute of Mental Health.
Named for the late Silvio Conte, a Massachusetts congressman and champion of the NIMH’s “Decade of the Brain” program in the 1990s, Conte Centers support collaborative neuroscience research that potentially will translate into treatments for mental illnesses.
Research supported by the first grant to Hopkins, awarded five years ago, formed the basis of 15 scholarly articles in Science, Nature, Journal of Neuroscience, Nature Neuroscience and Neuron.
The Johns Hopkins Conte Center brings together six leading neuroscience laboratories investigating the development and workings of synapses — those junctions through which nerve cells in the brain “talk” to each other via chemical signals. Scientists believe that learning and memory happen when communication channels between nerve cells are weakened or strengthened, a process called synaptic plasticity. Faulty synaptic signaling plays a role in behavioral disorders and psychiatric diseases including autism and schizophrenia. Synaptic plasticity is fundamental to all kinds of “learning” — from remembering times tables to drug addiction and chronic pain.
“Understanding the mechanisms that regulate the formation of synapses and modulation of synaptic transmission is critical for the development of novel therapeutic treatments for brain disorders and diseases,” says Richard Huganir, Ph.D., director of the Hopkins Conte Center and of the Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Huganir, whose lab is identifying genes that regulate the very formation of synapses, seeks molecular answers to big questions: How do we perceive, understand, react and remember? How does an experience — like looking at a painting — literally sculpt your brain? How does emotional status affect plasticity and determine whether an experience will change the connections between neurons for days, years or a lifetime?
Human emotions, intelligence, and learning all depend on a hundred billion nerve cells in the brain sending chemical signals to each other through more than 100 trillion synapses. For example, a burst of an excitatory chemical called glutamate from one nerve to the next will make it harder for that particular connection to "fire" again for a certain amount of time.
Under the auspices of the Conte Center, Paul Worley, M.D., and Solomon Snyder, M.D., professors of neuroscience, are studying proteins that are involved in glutamate signaling and investigating how calcium signaling contributes to synaptic plasticity and long-term changes in synaptic connections.
David Linden, Ph.D., and David Ginty, Ph.D., professors of neuroscience, are focusing on a “memory” molecule called serum response factor which binds to genes and turns them on, a critical element of long-term memory formation.
Dwight Bergles, Ph.D., associate professor of neuroscience, is studying astrocytes, the most abundant nerve cells, and how they communicate with other types of nerve cells.
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