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U of U Biologists Surprised to Discover "Ultrafast Recycling" at Nerve Synapses

Bob Nelson

University of Utah biologists have discovered that nerve cells work very differently and much faster than previously thought. Erik Jorgensen is a professor of biology at the U, and senior author of the study. He and fellow author Shigeki Watanabe published their findings Wednesday in the journal Nature.  Jorgensen says it took six years to develop the device that could flash freeze the high speed event under an electron microscope.

“When we finally did the experiment, the result was a huge surprise. It’s not what had been seen before. It wasn’t the process that people had been working on at all,” says Jorgensen.

Watanabe says it was thought that nerves function over a period of up to 20 seconds. He says their research shows ultrafast recycling, in milliseconds on “vesicles” or tiny bubbles sending signals along the cell pathway.

Credit Artist Janet Iwasa, University of Utah

“So the pathway that we found, actually allows you to recycle these bubbles or the synaptic vesicles quickly so that we can actually reuse it in a much faster scale, says Watanabe. "We found this new pathway but it doesn’t really explain how these new bubbles are actually made and that’s what we are studying at this moment,” Watanabe says.

Professor Jorgensen says he is excited and nervous as the research is published. He says he expects the scientific community to scrutinize the study results, but so far the feedback has been very positive.

Bob Nelson is a graduate of the University of Utah with a BA in mass communications. He began his radio career at KUER in 1978 when it was still in Kingsbury Hall. That’s also where he met his wife, Maria Shilaos, in 1981. Bob left KUER for commercial radio where he worked for 25 years, and he is thrilled to be back at KUER. Bob and his family are part of an explorer group, fondly known as The Hordes and Masses, which has been seeking out ghost towns and little-known places in Utah for more than twenty years.
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