Every minute of every day, the billions of cells in our brains send and receive signals that influence everything from the memories we form to the emotions we feel. Upon receiving new information, a nerve cell transmits an electrical signal, triggering the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters at special locations called synapses. These chemicals act as messengers, passing along instructions that switch nearby cells on or off. By studying the everyday chatter between nerve cells, researchers hope to better understand communication breakdowns that might contribute to brain disorders.
New tools and technologies in molecular and cellular biology are helping scientists track cell communication. Ongoing studies in animals and humans are linking deficits in neurotransmitter production and release to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and to psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. These insights could one day guide scientists to develop new drugs for these and other brain disorders.