Thursday, July 15, 2010

Neurobiology and biochemistry collaboration studies brain function

Next in our series of profiles on summer undergraduate research students is Charles Davis, who is working with Drs. Steven Fenster and Becky Corbin as part of our Merck/AAAS Foundation summer research program.

The central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain and spinal cord, functions like a network receiving and relaying messages back and forth from different parts of the body. Cells called neurons form the functional architecture of the CNS and regulate neuronal communication in the nervous system. My research focuses on the analysis and function of the protein Neuronal Interleukin-16 (NIL-16). NIL-16 is a protein expressed exclusively in neurons of the CNS. Two specific areas of the brain in which NIL-16 protein is highly expressed are the hippocampus and cerebellum, which are associated with learning and memory, but are also vulnerable to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. NIL-16 is a multi-domain scaffolding protein capable of organizing signaling complexes in neurons. These neuronal signaling complexes are critical for efficient communication between neurons. Understanding how signaling complexes form in neurons is significant to our understanding of how the brain works. The long-term goal of this research is to identify proteins that interact with the NIL-16 protein. In order to identify the unknown proteins we used MALDI (TOF) analysis, which is a state of the art biochemical technique. MALDI (TOF) analysis uses a laser beam to cause ionization of the protein sample, which produces a mass spectrum. This mass spectrum allows for the unknown protein to be compared to a standard and accurately identified. Identifying unknown protein complexes that interact with NIL-16 will contribute toward understanding how the brain works and will also provide improved diagnosis and treatment of nervous disorders.

- Charles Davis

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