Discovery: this curious molecule allows our neurons to communicate “wirelessly”!

Camille Coirault

November 28, 2023 at 4:03 p.m.


Brain © © Lia Koltyrina / Shutterstock

One more new superpower to be attributed to the brain © Lia Koltyrina / Shutterstock

Neuroscience has made a big step forward and a very recent discovery has revolutionized our understanding of neuronal communication: molecules allow neurons to communicate without direct contact.

Traditionally, we know that neurons establish their communications via the synaptic cleft, a space that forms a point of contact between them. Nerve impulses pass from one end of a neuron to the other (the axon) triggering the release of chemical molecules, neurotransmitters. Opposite, the receiving neuron recognizes these molecules, which causes changes inside it: excitation or inhibition of the electrical signal. This allows information to pass through the neural network. However, a recent paper published in the prestigious journal Nature has just revealed the existence of a new mode of communication between neurons, without contact. No magic there, just neurochemistry.

Neuropeptides: secret messengers of the brain

So the brain would already be capable of communicating via Wi-Fi 7? Joking aside, this is research carried out on a small millimeter worm, the Caenorhabditis elegans, who highlighted this ability. Thanks to this little thing, Isabel Beets and her team (Catholic University of Louvain) managed to map this wireless network formed by neuropeptides.

Neuropeptides are hormones made up of small proteins. They act as neuromodulators, that is to say they modify the way in which neurons communicate with each other. Thanks to this discovery, we now know that they not only complement synaptic communication, but that they constitute an entirely separate system. Isabel Beets explains: “ The network that relies on neuropeptides was thought to help the synaptic signaling network (…) but the map shows that this signaling network is extensive and is just as important, complex and perhaps even more diverse than the synaptic signaling network “.

Caenorhabditis elegans © © Science & Vie n°1237, October 2020

Caenorhabditis elegans, small bacterivorous nematode © Science & Vie n°1237, October 2020

New perspectives in neuroscience

As is often the case in neuroscience, this discovery and its impacts do not stop at the borders of the single species studied, in this case, the Caenorhabditis elegans. The potential implications are much broader. William Schafer, a neuroscientist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, is already planning to extend the model presented in this study to other organisms. “ These papers are excellent examples of judicious exploitation of a simple but well-studied organism with numerous molecular and genetic tools. We will be able to learn lessons from this, which, I am absolutely convinced, will apply to all other animals. “.

Thus, understanding more of the new “wireless” network could completely change our approach to neural dynamics. It is a paradigm that is falling, perhaps opening new avenues to explore in neurology and pharmacology.

Sources: International mail, Nature

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