OpenStax Chemistry 2e
The brain is the control center of the central nervous system. It sends and receives signals to and from muscles and other internal organs to monitor and control their functions; it processes stimuli detected by sensory organs to guide interactions with the external world; and it houses the complex physiological processes that give rise to our intellect and emotions. The broad field of neuroscience spans all aspects of the structure and function of the central nervous system, including research on the anatomy and physiology of the brain. Great progress has been made in brain research over the past few decades, and the BRAIN Initiative, a federal initiative announced in 2013, aims to accelerate and capitalize on these advances through the concerted efforts of various industrial, academic, and government agencies (more details available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/share/brain-initiative).
Specialized cells called neurons transmit information between different parts of the central nervous system by way of electrical and chemical signals. Chemical signaling occurs at the interface between different neurons when one of the cells releases molecules (called neurotransmitters) that diffuse across the small gap between the cells (called the synapse) and bind to the surface of the other cell. These neurotransmitter molecules are stored in small intracellular structures called vesicles that fuse to the cell wall and then break open to release their contents when the neuron is appropriately stimulated. This process is called exocytosis (see Figure 2). One neurotransmitter that has been very extensively studied is dopamine, C8H11NO2. Dopamine is involved in various neurological processes that impact a wide variety of human behaviors. Dysfunctions in the dopamine systems of the brain underlie serious neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and schizophrenia.
One important aspect of the complex processes related to dopamine signaling is the number of neurotransmitter molecules released during exocytosis. Since this number is a central factor in determining neurological response (and subsequent human thought and action), it is important to know how this number changes with certain controlled stimulations, such as the administration of drugs. It is also important to understand the mechanism responsible for any changes in the number of neurotransmitter molecules released—for example, some dysfunction in exocytosis, a change in the number of vesicles in the neuron, or a change in the number of neurotransmitter molecules in each vesicle.
Significant progress has been made recently in directly measuring the number of dopamine molecules stored in individual vesicles and the amount actually released when the vesicle undergoes exocytosis. Using miniaturized probes that can selectively detect dopamine molecules in very small amounts, scientists have determined that the vesicles of a certain type of mouse brain neuron contain an average of 30,000 dopamine molecules per vesicle (about 50 zmol). Analysis of these neurons from mice subjected to various drug therapies shows significant changes in the average number of dopamine molecules contained in individual vesicles, increasing or decreasing by up to three-fold, depending on the specific drug used. These studies also indicate that not all of the dopamine in a given vesicle is released during exocytosis, suggesting that it may be possible to regulate the fraction released using pharmaceutical therapies.
Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/books/chemistry-2e