Postsynaptic regulation of neurotransmission

In studying the cellular and molecular mechanisms that allow our brains to learn and remember, Dr. Yu Tian Wang is changing researchers’ understanding of how signals are transmitted throughout the nervous system. Dr. Wang recently came to BC – bringing 12 members of his lab with him – to set up a new laboratory at UBC’s Brain Research Centre and continue his studies on how neurons (brain cells) communicate with one another. Neurons transmit information through a process known as synaptic transmission. Learning, memory and the creation of neural connections in the brain, as well as the development of many brain disorders, are all related to the strength of synaptic transmission. The functioning of neurotransmitter receptors, which are located at the receiving end of synaptic transmissions between neurons, is key to this process. When certain types of receptors, such as glutamate receptors, are understimulated, communication between neurons is decreased and may lead to diseases such as Alzheimer’s; when these receptors are overstimulated, such as during a stroke or epileptic seizure, neurons may die. Dr. Wang’s work has challenged the traditional understanding that the primary way to affect transmission strength between neurons is to increase or decrease the functioning of the receptors. Instead, he has found that some physiological and pharmacological factors, such as certain hormones, can actually alter the number of receptors found on the neuron’s surface and affect transmission strength. This research has many potential applications. For example, enhancing the number of receptors in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, or in children with neurological disorders, could enhance learning and memory. Decreasing the receptors could protect against brain cell death following a stroke.