Earlier this month Stephanie Bissiere, Ph.D., and a team of researchers at UCLA successfully made a "long-shot" discovery about the behavioral relevance for electrical communication and gap junctions in the adult brain.
The team found that blocking electrical synapses, which couple inhibitory neurons and enable them to synchronize their firing, can prevent fear memories to a place or context from forming. This new discovery has major implications for new treatment targets for PTSD and other anxiety disorders.
The formation of fear memories is the major cause of anxiety disorders and this discovery could present a new target for treatment, even after a frightening experience occurs. "When you have PTSD or anxiety your brain encodes a contextual memory of where the trauma took place in," Dr. Bissiere explained. "Blocking electrical synapse communication directly in the hippocampus of rats blocked the imposition of the fear in that place."
Dr. Bissiere is exploring relatively unchartered territory in the mammalian brain. In comparison to electrical communication in the brain, chemical communication (that uses the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine or serotonin) is more commonly the focus of research. Chemical communication was discovered first, and more advances in this field have been made compared to electrical communication, which have been difficult to study without the recent technological advances.
"This is a refreshing finding that has been overlooked," Dr. Bissiere said. "This specific discovery is encouraging because it opens up an entire new field of study."
And with the help of a NARSAD 2010 Young Investigator grant, Dr. Bissiere will be one of the scientists leading research in this new area of interest.
"The NARSAD Young Investigator grant is going to allow me to look at the electrical synapses and gap junctions in the amygdala, the center of the brain's fear circuitry - an area involved in all major psychiatric disorders," Dr. Bissiere said. "This is really exciting. NARSAD will help me to unravel the contribution of electrical communication in the brain to anxiety disorders in general. And hopefully this will attract new collaborators to the field because I can't do all of the work myself.
"Discoveries like this show that not everything has been discovered. The brain is complex in many ways. This kind of discovery brings hope because just when we think we are running short of targets for treatment, we say, 'Oh wow! Maybe we can go that way now!'"
Click here to read an announcement about this discovery.