For years, brain scientists have puzzled over the shadowy role played by the molecule putrescine, which always seems to be present in the brain following an epileptic seizure, but without a clear indication whether it was there to exacerbate brain damage that follows a seizure or protect the brain from it. A new Brown University study unmasks the molecule as squarely on the side of good: It seems to protect against seizures hours later. Putrescine is a foul-smelling organic chemical compound (1,4-diaminobutane or butanediamine) that is related to cadaverine; both are produced by the breakdown of amino acids in living and dead organisms and both are toxic in large doses. The two compounds are largely responsible for the foul odor of putrefying flesh. Putrescine is one in a family of molecules called "polyamines" that are present throughout the body to mediate crucial functions such as cell division. Why they surge in the brain after seizures isn't understood. In a lengthy set of experiments, Brown neuroscientists meticulously traced their activity in the brains of seizure-laden tadpoles. What they found is that putrescine ultimately is converted into the neurotransmitter GABA, which is known to calm brain activity. When the researchers caused a seizure in the tadpoles, they found that the putrescine produced in a first wave of seizures helped tadpoles hold out longer against a second wave of induced seizures. Dr. Carlos Aizenman, assistant professor of neuroscience and senior author of the study published online on March 6, 2011, in the journal Nature Neuroscience, said further research could ultimately produce a drug that targets the process, potentially helping young children with epilepsy. Tadpoles and toddlers aren't much alike, but this basic aspect of their brain chemistry is.
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