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An international team of scientists has discovered a previously unknown receptor in the brain that is associated with negative moods.
The discovery, the scientists say, could lead to more targeted medications and opens science up to a previously little-known part of the human brain.
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A pea-sized receptor
The receptor, which is described as being pea-sized, was found in a small region in the center of the human brain, that has been the focus of little study up to this point. It is called the 'medial habenula.'
The finding comes after eight years of investigation involving Dr. Yo Otsu, now with the University of Sydney and Kolling Institute, and researchers from France, Canada, and Hungary, under the direction of Dr. Marco Diana.
The scientists believe the receptor, called the glycine gated [N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor] NMDA receptor, plays a role in regulating negative moods.
They have published their research in the leading journal Science.
"The function of the medial habenula is not very well understood but is thought to be related to negative motivational states," said Dr. Otsu in a press release.
"We knew there were GluN3A subunits in the adult medial habenula and NMDA receptors formed with these subunits were likely to have different characteristics. We did not expect to find the receptor that we did," Dr. Otsu continued.
A new type of psychiatric drug?
Receptors direct brain function making them the target for many medicines. So "the discovery of this rare type of receptor and its role in modulating anxiety and the effects of negative experiences means it has the potential to be a highly specific target for mood-regulating drugs," Dr. Otsu said.
Most psychiatric drugs affect the whole brain, meaning that they can lead to a long list of unwanted side effects. This discovery offers the opportunity to create more targeted medications with fewer side effects.
The next step is for the researchers to get a better understanding of this newly found receptor. Ultimately, they aim to develop drugs based on their findings.
The discovery opens up a whole new area of research in the human brain with great potential for improving peoples' mental health.