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Scientists learn how the brain 'boots up' to process information from the senses

Winston-Salem, N.C. -- The same chemical in the body that is targeted by the drug Viagra also helps our brains "boot up" in the morning so we can process sights, sound, touch and other sensory information. The discovery could lead to a better understanding of major brain disorders, according to researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

"We've learned new information about how our brains process sensory information, which may help increase our understanding of what goes awry in conditions such as schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder and epilepsy," said Dwayne Godwin, Ph.D., associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy and senior author of the study, reported on-line this week in the journal Neuroscience.

Through studying ferrets, the researchers set out to understand the role of nitric oxide, a small gaseous molecule with big roles in health. The drug Viagra acts by slowing down the breakdown of nitric oxide in the penis, leading to increased blood flow. The heart drug nitroglycerin is converted to nitric oxide by the body and widens blood vessels, easing the pain of angina.

In the brain, small puffs of the gas are naturally released during the day by the brainstem, where it affects another region called the thalamus, but scientists knew little about its role.

Nitric oxide is released during awareness, or aroused states of the brain. In the animal studies, Godwin and colleagues found something surprising about how it enhances the flow of sensory information from the eyes to the brain to process vision.

"Just as a computer must boot up its operating system before running involved applications like spreadsheets, nitric oxide released as the brain wakes up may set the stage for more complex brain operations by enhancing information at the earliest processing steps," said Godwin.

Sensory information from the eyes, skin or ears goes first to the thalamus, which acts like a gateway
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Contact: Karen Richardson
krchrdsn@wfubmc.edu
336-716-4453
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center
8-Aug-2006


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