Study Finds That Gene Transcription Can Serve as Brain’s Timekeeper

May 31, 2018

Neurons keep time. These brain cells – which are responsible for the brain’s “heavy lifting,” from information processing to memory formation – seem to "know" how long they’ve been exposed to sensory stimulation. Now, scientists are starting to understand how they do this.

Neurobiology Professor Ramen Saha recently identified an important component of the brain’s timekeeping machinery, a major breakthrough that made the cover of the journal Neuron — the first time the prestigious journal has published a study by an incumbent UC Merced faculty member.

Collaborating with researchers at Harvard University and the National Institutes of Health, Saha discovered that neurons exposed to sensory stimulation — flashes of light for example — could tell how long the stimulus lasted and transcribe different genes in response.

For those of us who’ve been away from the biology classroom for a while, gene transcription may be little more than a foggy memory. Transcription serves as a kind of molecular Xerox — the cell’s way of copying information encoded in genes so it can be delivered to other parts of the cell. Though studies of transcription are ubiquitous, the new paper is a breakthrough because Saha and his collaborators found that transcription helps brains keep time.

“This paper, for the first time, tells us that neurons can distinguish incoming sensory information based on its duration,” Saha said. “Neurons were found to transcribe different genes depending on the duration of the stimulus."

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