Mind the synaptic gaps

October 6, 2014

Making sense of the brain involves much more than studying the neurons themselves. The points of connection between neurons, called synapses, are vital to the brain’s ability to relay information. Each neuron can have as many as ten thousand synaptic connections to other neurons, where both short and long term information transfer takes place.

And just like the neurons they connect, no two synapses are exactly alike. Synapses play a crucial role in brain health, and faulty synapse populations can contribute to many diseases and disorders, including Parkinson’s and major depression.

The National Institutes of Health has awarded the Allen Institute a Transformative Research Award of $8.7 million over five years to study synapse diversity. The Allen Institute will lead and coordinate an interdisciplinary consortium of neurobiologists, biophysicists, clinicians, mathematicians and computer scientists who will use powerful new imaging techniques to measure, analyze and model synapse populations in both the mouse and human brains.

The outcome of the project will be the Open Synaptome Project, in which the data and tools for the study’s pipeline will be made publicly available for researchers around the world to fuel their own study of synapse populations in other areas of the brain.

Transformative Research Awards recognize projects with the potential to change the way we think about a particular area in science. Synapses have historically been challenging to study due to their tiny size and extremely complex machinery, but new imaging techniques like array tomography (pictured) will help researchers create three-dimensional images of synapses, illuminating their intricate mechanics and opening up the research possibilities not just for neurons, but for the gaps in between.

For more information on the consortium and the role of synapses, see our press release.

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