The brain is the source of thoughts, perceptions, emotions, memories and actions. Neural signaling, the foundation of brain activity, must be precisely regulated to prevent neuronal disorders that may cause Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, compulsive behaviors and addiction. Such a precise regulation is achieved by key signaling proteins, voltage-gated sodium and potassium channels for electrical signaling and calcium - bound synaptotagmin for chemical signaling. Here, innovations in computer simulation techniques will be used to investigate the molecular mechanism of neural firing induced by voltage-gated sodium and potassium channels and membrane fusion triggered by synaptotagmin.

Spotlight: Movies of potassium ion permeation (Sep 2006)

Ion permeation in K channels

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movie 1 ( 1.6MB ),
movie 2 ( 4.7MB ), movie 3 ( 1.4MB )

Biological cells, in particular neurons, maintain an inside-outside voltage gradient through active transport of ions (Na+, K+, Cl-, and others) across their membranes. The flow of the ions down their gradients through membrane channels is highly selective for each ion. The high selectivity permits nerve cells to signal each other through voltage spikes, which are produced through transient changes of channel conductivities for Na+ ions (channels open and close in about a ms) and K+ ions (channels open and close in about 10 ms). Crucial for the generation of voltage spikes is the selective, yet quick, conduction of ions, but as one knows from personal experience at border crossings, high selectivity and quick crossing seem to be mutually exclusive. Yet biological ion channels reconcile selectivity and speed. Prior experimental work, primarily that of year 2003 Nobelist MacKinnon, as well as computational work suggested how potassium channels achieve selectivity and speed. But until recently no high resolution atomic structure of a potassium channel was known in the open form and the suggested mechanism could not be tested under natural conditions through atomic level simulations. Last year's solution of the structure of the potassium channel Kv1.2 in its open form made it finally possible to simulate, using NAMD, the conduction of ions through Kv1.2 driven by a voltage gradient. The results reported recently confirmed indeed the high selectivity - high speed mechanism suggested earlier, namely a billiard-type motion of two and three ions, the last ion kicking the first ion out. The simulations revealed for the first time, through movies, the overall permeation process, including the jumps of ions between energetically favorable binding sites and the sequence of multi-ion configurations involved in permeation. More on our potassium channel web site.

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