Health Watch -- Brain Protein

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One protein in the brain could be the key to learning, memory and some brain disorders.

The brain is a complex and delicate structure, and researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas have learned that one protein molecule can make a big difference.

The researchers studied mice missing the genes for different kinds of neurotransmitter proteins. With two of the kinds of proteins, the brains seemed to learn to compensate. The mice had cellular abnormalities, but their behavior wasn't affected. They were still able to learn tasks. But with one kind of protein, the mice were unable to learn a basic task, even after multiple attempts over several days. They also had symptoms similar to what might be seen in schizophrenia.

Dr. Eric Nestler, chairman of psychiatry at UT Southwestern, says the study shows that this one protein is so important for so many essential brain functions involved with learning and memory that its absence significantly changes behavior.

Researchers believe this discovery and additional research into this protein's role in learning and memory will help scientists better understand brain disorders such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease and mental retardation. This protein and the gene that controls it could be targets for future treatments of brain disorders. More research is needed now that scientists know which protein appears to be most crucial.

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May 2004

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