MPFI Neuroscientist Shares Insights into Brain Power ‘Neighborhoods’ that May Impact ALS, Alzheimer’s Care

March 20, 2024

A new understanding of memory formation and storage based on how neurons are powered could lead to novel treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Neuroscientist Dr. Vidhya Rangaraju shared exciting discoveries from her laboratory at Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience (MPFI) with nearly 500 attendees at this year’s second Science Meets Music event on February 21, 2024.

In her talk, Dr. Rangaraju discussed important work conducted in her lab to help understand how the brain’s 86 billion neurons are fueled as they make and store new memories. Neurons are the message delivery cells of the brain that carry information throughout the body. Her Science Meets Music session covered three new and important findings:

  • Mitochondria in the brain are strategically positioned, like distribution warehouses, to deliver energy to brain synapses.
  • Calcium alerts the mitochondria to the need to produce energy.
  • When the protein “glue” VAP is not present, mitochondria can drift away from the synapses they power.

How Brain Fuel Helps Form New Memories

Interruptions in the brain’s energy supply can result in neurological disorders that affect memory formation and storage. The Rangaraju Lab set out to understand how these processes are powered at the synapse, which is the junction between two brain cells.

Thousands of molecules help brain neurons grow, store information and create new memories. These molecules require fuel, which is created in mitochondria, organelles that function as “energy factories” in the brain.

Just like online retailers position shipping warehouses across the world to provide next-day deliveries, Dr. Rangaraju and her team discovered that mitochondria are positioned in synapse “neighborhoods” throughout the brain for quick delivery of energy.

“When the synapses need energy, they don’t have to wait for the cell body to deliver the energy,” she explained. “The brain has these local warehouses, the mitochondria, located near where energy is needed.”

Dr. Rangaraju discovered that calcium alerts mitochondria to the need for energy production. When triggered, the mitochondria respond by dramatically increasing their size to accommodate production of ATP, which is then distributed to the neuron.

Mitochondria are held in place by a protein “glue” called VAP. When VAP isn’t present, mitochondria can move away from the synapses they power, leaving the brain unable to produce new memories and vulnerable to neurodegenerative conditions.

“These fundamental discoveries allow us to look at old problems like ALS from a new angle,” Dr. Rangaraju said. “By better understanding how our bodies work, we can begin to develop new therapies to help.”

The evening also featured performances from pianist Madison Yan, an alum of Dreyfoos School of Arts and a student at the Frost School of music. Yan has won national and international awards recognizing her musical talents.

About Dr. Rangaraju

Dr. Rangaraju joined MPFI in early 2020 after completing a fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Germany. She earned her Ph.D. at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York and has received several awards for her research. In 2023, she was awarded $1.2 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to explore dysfunctions of brain energy supply.

Up Next: The Science of Smell

Science Meets Music is hosted by MPFI and held three times a year at Benjamin High School in Palm Beach Gardens. The next event is March 27, 2024, and will feature Prof. Dr. Bill Hansson of Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology giving a talk titled “Smelling to Survive”.

Accompanying Prof. Dr. Hansson will be the Chamber Music Society of Palm Beach Ensemble. The event is free and open to the public, and registration is required. Register today.

For media inquiries, contact Katie Edwards at katie.edwards@mpfi.org.

Science Meets Music is generously sponsored by the Honorable David Fischer & Mrs. Jennifer Fischer.

Watch the Talk

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