Researchers using a supercomputer have shown how proteins in the brain control electrical signals, in a breakthrough that could lead to safer and more effective drugs and anaesthetics.
Although general anaesthetics are a mainstay of modern medicine, they have a small safety margin. They may also have long-term effects on brain function in both newborns and the elderly.
General anaesthetics work by blocking “on” switches and enhancing “off” switches in the brain, leading to loss of sensation and the ability to feel pain.
In the seven-year study, RMIT University researchers used hundreds of millions of computer processing hours, to show how these protein “switches” are controlled.
“Even though anaesthetics have been used for more than 150 years, scientists still don’t know how they work at the molecular level,” study lead Professor Toby Allen said.
“Our study has uncovered details of the switching mechanism that will help in the design of new anaesthetics that are safer, both immediately and for long-term brain function, as well as more effective and more targeted use of anaesthetics.”
The researchers’ findings also unlock a range of other potential applications including understanding how mutations to these mechanisms cause diseases like epilepsy and startle disease, as well as new treatments for anxiety, alcoholism, chronic pain, stroke and other neural conditions.
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