Science explained

What is a Synapse?

Major disorders of the Central Nervous System (CNS) affect one in three people in the developed world. You can think of diseases like major depression, schizophrenia, These diseases often seriously affect people in their work, social life and they form the largest burden on the healthcare systems of the EU. Most of the disorders of the brain act at the neuronal synapse, a tiny part of a nerve cell, which forms the contact between nerve cells, or between nerve cells and muscle. The brain contains over 100 trillion synapses (!). A synapse is the junction across which a nerve impulse passes from an axon terminal to a neuron, muscle cell, or gland cell.Each synapse contains about 2000 different proteins that together form little machines that make the synapse work, and allow nerve cells to communicate. Scientist are highly interested in understanding how these protein machines work and what might go wrong when a brain disease is ongoing. Another reason why scientists want to understand the way these proteins work together is that they want to be able to design drugs, which act on them and can correct synapse function when the synapse is not working well.

Systems biology of the Synapse

A relatively new area in biology is ‘systems biology’. Systems biology is a scientific approach that tries to understand function at different levels. For the synapse this means one wants to know how proteins act together (molecular level), but also one wants to know how this relates to the communication of the nerve cells (physiology). Scientists in the SynSys consortium aim to bring together understanding at different levels and also try to ‘model’ these. That means that using the information of the experiments they try to compute how the system works and also they can use this to predict how the system will respond. These ‘models’ will be needed in the future to understand how the synaptic machines react to diseases and drugs to treat disease.

4th European Synapse Meeting

28 - 30 August 2013
Bordeaux, France