Supercomputer study unlocks secrets of brain and safer anesthetics

May 21, 2017

Researchers have used a supercomputer to show how proteins in the brain control electrical signals, in a breakthrough that could lead to safer and more effective drugs and anaesthetics.

In the seven-year study just released, RMIT University researchers in Melbourne, Australia - led by Professor Toby Allen and including Dr Bogdan Lev and Dr Brett Cromer - modelled how protein "switches" are activated by binding molecules to generate electrical signals in the brain.

The findings, which involved hundreds of millions of computer processing hours, pave the way for understanding how brain activity can be controlled by existing and new drugs, including anaesthetics.

General anaesthetics work by blocking "on" switches and enhancing "off" switches in the brain, leading to loss of sensation and the ability to feel pain.

"Even though anaesthetics have been used for more than 150 years, scientists still don't know how they work at the molecular level," Allen said.

"General anaesthetics are a mainstay of modern medicine, but have a small safety margin, requiring skilled anaesthetists for their safe use. They may also have long-term effects on brain function in both newborns and the elderly.

"Our study has uncovered details of the switching mechanism that will help in the design of new anaesthetics that are safer, both immediately and for long-term brain function, as well as more effective and more targeted use of anaesthetics."

Allen said the computer models, using the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative, provided an unprecedented level of understanding of the nervous system.

"These protein switches, called ligand-gated ion channels, are primary electrical components of our nervous systems. Understanding how they work is one of the most important questions in biology," he said.

"Our computer models show something that's never been seen before. We have discovered how ion channels bind molecules, such as neurotransmitters, and are activated to generate electrical signals in neurons.

"We are now using these models to make important predictions for how the binding of drugs and anaesthetics may control electrical signalling."

The findings also unlock a range of other potential applications including understanding how ion channel mutations cause diseases like epilepsy and startle disease, as well as new treatments for anxiety, alcoholism, chronic pain, stroke and other neural conditions.

And because all living organisms share similar proteins, the findings could also open up possibilities for safer and more effective insecticides and anti-parasitics, while the computer modelling developed in the study reduces the need to test new drugs on animals.

The study was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, as well as the Medical Advances Without Animals Trust.

The findings have been published this month in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
-end-


RMIT University

Related Brain Activity Articles from Brightsurf:

Inhibiting epileptic activity in the brain
A new study shows that a protein -- called DUSP4 -- was increased in healthy brain tissue directly adjacent to epileptic tissue.

What is your attitude towards a humanoid robot? Your brain activity can tell us!
Researchers at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Italy found that people's bias towards robots, that is, attributing them intentionality or considering them as 'mindless things', can be correlated with distinct brain activity patterns.

Using personal frequency to control brain activity
Individual frequency can be used to specifically influence certain areas of the brain and thus the abilities processed in them - solely by electrical stimulation on the scalp, without any surgical intervention.

Rats' brain activity reveals their alcohol preference
The brain's response to alcohol varies based on individual preferences, according to new research in rats published in eNeuro.

Studies of brain activity aren't as useful as scientists thought
Hundreds of published studies over the last decade have claimed it's possible to predict an individual's patterns of thoughts and feelings by scanning their brain in an MRI machine as they perform some mental tasks.

A child's brain activity reveals their memory ability
A child's unique brain activity reveals how good their memories are, according to research recently published in JNeurosci.

How dopamine drives brain activity
Using a specialized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) sensor that can track dopamine levels, MIT neuroscientists have discovered how dopamine released deep within the brain influences distant brain regions.

Brain activity intensity drives need for sleep
The intensity of brain activity during the day, notwithstanding how long we've been awake, appears to increase our need for sleep, according to a new UCL study in zebrafish, published in Neuron.

Do babies like yawning? Evidence from brain activity
Contagious yawning is observed in many mammals, but there is no such report in human babies.

Understanding brain activity when you name what you see
Using complex statistical methods and fast measurement techniques, researchers found how the brain network comes up with the right word and enables us to say it.

Read More: Brain Activity News and Brain Activity Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.