Brain scientists studying the molecular mechanisms of
memory have earned a $1.5 million grant
and the second consecutive designation for the Johns
Hopkins University School of Medicine as a
Silvio A. Conte Center for Neuroscience Research by the
National Institute of Mental Health.
Named for the late Silvio Conte, a Massachusetts
congressman and champion of the NIMH's
"Decade of the Brain" program in the 1990s, Conte Centers
support collaborative neuroscience
research that potentially will translate into treatments
for mental illnesses.
Research supported by the first grant to Johns
Hopkins, awarded five years ago, formed the
basis of 15 scholarly articles in Science, Nature,
Journal of Neuroscience, Nature Neuroscience and
The Johns Hopkins Conte Center brings together six
leading neuroscience laboratories
investigating the development and workings of synapses,
those junctions through which nerve cells in
the brain "talk" to each other via chemical signals.
Scientists believe that learning and memory happen
when communication channels between nerve cells are
weakened or strengthened, a process called
synaptic plasticity. Faulty synaptic signaling plays a role
in behavioral disorders and psychiatric
diseases including autism and schizophrenia. Synaptic
plasticity is fundamental to all kinds of
"learning," from remembering times tables to drug addiction
and chronic pain.
"Understanding the mechanisms that regulate the
formation of synapses and modulation of
synaptic transmission is critical for the development of
novel therapeutic treatments for brain
disorders and diseases," said Richard Huganir, director of
the Johns Hopkins Conte Center and of the
Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience at the
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Huganir, whose lab is identifying genes that regulate
the very formation of synapses, seeks
molecular answers to big questions: How do we perceive,
understand, react and remember? How does
an experience, such as looking at a painting, literally
sculpt your brain? How does emotional status
affect plasticity and determine whether an experience will
change the connections between neurons
for days, years or a lifetime?
Human emotions, intelligence and learning all depend
on a hundred billion nerve cells in the brain
sending chemical signals to each other through more than
100 trillion synapses. For example, a burst
of an excitatory chemical called glutamate from one nerve
to the next will make it harder for that
particular connection to "fire" again for a certain amount
Under the auspices of the Conte Center, Paul Worley
and Solomon Snyder, professors of
neuroscience, are studying proteins that are involved in
glutamate signaling and investigating how
calcium signaling contributes to synaptic plasticity and
long-term changes in synaptic connections.
David Linden and David Ginty, also professors of
neuroscience, are focusing on a "memory"
molecule called serum response factor that binds to genes
and turns them on, a critical element of
long-term memory formation.
Dwight Bergles, associate professor of neuroscience,
is studying astrocytes, the most abundant
nerve cells, and how they communicate with other types of
For more on the Silvio A. Conte Center for
Neuroscience Research at Johns Hopkins, go to: