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Structure and dynamics of molecular machines for brain cell communication

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Synapses, the junctions between brain cells, are believed to be key players in information processing and storage. Within neurons, information is transmitted as electrical pulses, which need to be faithfully passed on to neighbouring cells. This is achieved through the use of a chemical neurotransmitter that is released from the pre-synaptic cell and diffuses across synapses to activate receptors on the post-synaptic cell, which in turn activate new electrical currents in that cell. Each cell has to process information from thousands of synapses and still obtain information from each one, requiring a great deal of fine-tuning of each synaptic response. This depends on a number of factors including the number and properties of the receptors as well as the morphology of the synapse. The receptor properties are controlled at a number of levels including the intrinsic mechanism of the receptors themselves, which can be modified by assembly with other proteins. I will discuss my work into the mechanism of one type of receptor, which binds the major excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. As with any molecular machine, this requires a detailed understanding of protein structure and dynamics and I will discuss various approaches for obtaining this information.

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