New clue to understanding how fatty acids work in the brain

Scientists in Cambridge have discovered that a brain protein called syntaxin enables fatty molecules, used widely in health supplements, to work in the brain to make it function properly. Lead Scientist, Dr Bazbek Davletov and his colleague Dr Colin Rickman from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK report their findings in the journal Chemistry and Biology.

Our ability to think, remember and learn depends on communication between neurons in the brain. Fatty molecules such as Omega-3 extracted from fish or plants and arachidonic acid help this process. But despite widespread use of these fatty acids in health supplements, it was not known how they actually work in the brain. The scientists have now discovered that the brain protein syntaxin acts as a tiny sensor of the fatty molecules. They act to unlock syntaxin, which then becomes activated and forms a switch for increased neuronal communication. The discovery means that the syntaxin brain protein can now be used to screen for other man-made and natural chemicals that might boost brain power or guard against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The discovery that syntaxin is an important sensor molecule in neurotransmission happened by coincidence. The syntaxin used in the scientists’ research was purified from cow brains and stored in special chemical detergents to keep it soluble. But when different detergents were used this affected how syntaxin interacted with its partners known to help neurons to communicate. This observation led the scientists to discover the role of fatty acids in activating the syntaxin molecule and now opens a possibility to screen for new products that may aid communication in the brain.

Dr Davletov said, “This discovery underlines the necessity of carrying out molecular scientific research, which as well as being valuable in its own right, can potentially lead to important public health applications.

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