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The Making of Medicine

Now We Can See Brain Cells ‘Talk’

Our J. Julius Zhu, PhD, and his colleagues have created a way for us to see brain cells called neurons “talk” with each other. Imaging these discussions will help us better understand how the brain works and let us develop new and better treatments for neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and depression.

“Before we didn’t have any way to understand how [neurotransmissions] work,” Dr. Zhu told me. “In the case of Alzheimer’s, in particular, we spent billions of dollars and we have almost no effective treatment. … Now, for the first time, we can see what is happening.”

As proof of concept, Dr. Zhu and his colleagues at UVA and in China “eavesdropped” on a conversation conducted by a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. By determining what healthy neurotransmissions inside the brain look like, doctors could use that as a baseline when planning treatments for patients with neurological conditions.

“We’ve already found that there are acetylcholine transmissions very different from what we would expect,” said Dr. Zhu, of our Department of Pharmacology. “Then we also want to find how the patient differs. That comparison will provide us important answers.”

Dr. Zhu is a man of many interests, and it’s always a pleasure to go chat with him about his latest projects. You can read more about his work here.


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