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The storage, release and inactivation of neurotransmitters from nerve endings

The 1970 Nobel Prize of Physiology and medicine was jointly awarded to Sir Bernard Katz, Ulf von Euler and Julius Axelrod for their work on ‘humoral transmitters’ - today known as neurotransmitters - of the nerve synapses and the mechanism for their storage, release and inactivation.

Neurotransmitters in the brain are chemicals that transmit information between different neurons by crossing a synapse. The nerve electrical signal can not cross the gap between most neurons so an alternative mechanism of nerve-transmission is required and this is a chemical signal..

All three Nobel laureates participated in understanding these chemical signals and how they moved between different nerve cells.

Axelrod and von Euler focussed on the role and storage of noradrenaline, a compound Von Euler has discovered in 1946. Noradrenaline is partly responsible for the body’s reaction to stressful situations andthey established that it works as a transmitter substance at nerve endings.

Katz looked at the biochemical cycle in the neuromuscular functions of acetylcholine, a substance whose roles as a neurotransmitter had previously been confirmed in the 1930s by Sir Henry Dale.

Ulf Von Euler was the discoverer of several neurotransmittersand he found that noradrenaline, like all neurotransmitters, carries messages between nerve cells and is produced and stored in nerve synaptic terminals.

This turned out to be a key discovery which dramatically changed the course of research in the field. Prof Julius Axelrod completed their discovery by finding in 1949 that most neurotransmitters, after being released into the synapse lumen, are picked back up by a membrane pump that transports them back into the nerve ending from where they had been released, allowing the neurotransmitters to be recycled.

Katz, on the other hand, uncovered other fundamental properties of synapses. By the 1950s, he had found that neurotransmitters are released in a “quantal” manner – meaning that at any particular synapse, the amount of neurotransmitter released is never less than a certain amount and if more is needed, it is always an integral number of times of this amount. We now understand that it is a reflection of the fact that neurotransmitters are stored in vesicles prior to and upon release.

Put together, the work of all three scientists helped uncover the basic and important principles of nerve communication and synaptic organization. The works had massive ramifications for the later development of drugs for psychiatry, and especially in the treatment of mental illness.


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