Monday, November 13, 2000

New UK center probes brain

By Steve Bailey
The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — Greg Gerhardt doesn't mind being called a “brainiac.”

        The University of Kentucky professor of anatomy and neurobiology is the first to admit he's fascinated by the brain and how its cells communicate.

        In fact, he came to the university last year to create the Center for Sensor Technology, where he and other researchers work to understand what happens during chemical interactions among nerve cells in the brain.

        Mr. Gerhardt hopes a better understanding of the communication process will lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease and Alzheimer's.

        “We don't understand the actual chemical signaling going on in the brain that allows you to move or think,” Mr. Gerhardt said. “The new technologies that we are developing here will allow us to enter the world of chemical communication between cells.

        “We're going to figure out why neurodegenerative diseases have such a big impact on people's lives. The brain's circuitry is being destroyed by these illnesses. By better understanding the communication process, we can better repair the damage to the brain at the cellular level.”

        Don Gash, chairman of the UK College of Medicine's Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, said the center is a prestigious addition to the university.

        “It's great to be at the forefront of such exciting research,” Mr. Gash said. “We are actually building instruments here in Lexington that are going to be used throughout the world.

        “People who want to do this kind of research in London or Switzerland or wherever in the future are going to be looking to us for the technology and the expertise, and that's exciting.”

        Mr. Gerhardt originally established the center in 1991 at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

        But after joining the UK College of Medicine in 1999 as part of the Research Challenge Trust Fund program sponsored by the Kentucky legislature, Mr. Gerhardt arranged to transfer the center's National Science Foundation funding to UK.

        Research at the center is centered on the development and use of high-tech sensors and other state-of-the-art equipment, such as tiny microelectrodes, for studies of brain function. The microelectrodes can be implanted in various regions of the brain to measure tiny amounts of chemicals such as dopamine, nor- epinephrine, serotonin, glutamate and nitric oxide.

        “We design and build these very small sensors to understand how cells in the brain, called neurons, actually communicate with one another,” Mr. Gerhardt said.

        “These cells are very small, about a third of the size of a human hair. So in order to go into that environment and listen to how neurons speak, we have to develop by hand these very tiny sensors that are even smaller than the neurons themselves.

        “In fact, with Harvard we are working on a procedure to actually use the sensors during neurosurgery as a tool to understand more of what's wrong with the brain of a person that has Parkinson's or epilepsy.”

        The sensors measure lightning-quick chemical interactions that nerve cells use to exchange signals. These molecules are record ed by the tiny sensors and transmitted to a computer program where researchers can monitor the reactions in real time.

        A more detailed picture of the neurological signaling system could lead to better understanding of schizophrenia, depression, aging, aggression, drug abuse and even senses like smell and taste, Mr. Gerhardt said.

        “We really don't understand a lot about smell and taste systems and how they operate,” he said. “Right now, we're working with a marine biological laboratory on a study of lobsters and how they smell. As it turns out, a lobster is a good model system to understand many of the signaling properties that take place in the human nose to trigger smells.

        “When an odor enters your nose, it binds to odor receptors. There then is a chemical interaction that takes place to signal the brain to identify that smell. It is a very rapid process, and you need very fast recording methods to be able to watch how that occurs. These sensors allow us do that.”


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