Page last updated at 09:27 GMT, Thursday, 25 June 2009 10:27 UK

Brain hope for erection molecule

Brain cells
Nitric oxide may play a key role in helping brain cells communicate

Scientists believe a molecule which controls blood pressure and male erections may also have a profound impact on the brain.

The University of Leicester team believe nitric oxide may change the way we think and hear.

They hope studying it could potentially lead to new treatments for migraine, epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease and chronic pain.

The research is funded by the Medical Research Council.

This prompts the question 'Why is a molecule that can produce penile erections necessary in the brain?'
Adam Tozer
University of Leicester

The role of nitric oxide in erections was made famous by the discovery that its effect can be increased by anti-impotence drugs such as Viagra.

It is thought that it functions as a "signalling" molecule, helping the body's cells to communicate with each other.

And it is known that enzymes which aid the synthesis of nitric oxide are active in the brain cells.

Complex communication

Researcher Adam Tozer said: "This prompts the question 'Why is a molecule that can produce penile erections necessary in the brain?'

"It is hoped that this research will go some way to solving the complexity of communication between brain cells, and therefore provide openings for therapeutic strategies against debilitating conditions.

"It will also help to shed light on communication in the healthy brain and this will enable a greater understanding of how we think."

The Leicester team will focus on the junctions - or synapses - between cells that enable them to "talk" to each other.

They will examine how nitric oxide can influence this communication.

There is evidence to suggest that high levels of nitric oxide have a toxic effect, and may trigger serious brain diseases, such as Alzheimer's.

Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust said: "It will be interesting to find out what nitric oxide does in the brain, and if it has any role in Alzheimer's.

"This study may help researchers understand how the brain works and how nerve cells communicate with each other.

"Understanding our thought processes and the brain is crucial to understanding and defeating diseases that affect it."

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