28 May 1998

Scientists Eavesdrop On Speaking Cells

It's been a good day for the science of thought. Following hard on the heels of today's earlier news that scientists at John Hopkins had successfully clocked the speed of human comprehension, researchers at Stanford University have managed - for the first time ever - to read the individual chemical messages that cells exchange in the brain.

"We really are seeing a new era dawning in which people are trying to understand the chemistry of the brain and the central nervous system, with possibly amazing consequences, from treating mental disease to improving mental powers," says Richard Zare, the team leader.

Getting to grips with the language of cells has been extremely difficult, with previous efforts thwarted by the sheer minuteness of vesicles - the microscopic membrane-bound pouches that carry the chemical signals. More than a billion vesicles could fit into a small drop of water.

Yet by manipulating and examining the vesicles of sea-slugs (which are about 1000 times larger than the ones our brains use), the scientists were able to learn a great deal about the vocabulary of cell-speak. They may not have enough for a glossary, but it's a significant first step. The kinds of conversations they monitored included such linguistic gems as "ouch!"

It's one thing, say the researchers, to read individual words in cellular mail. Translating the whole language is another matter altogether. "I think we are showing the way," says Zare, "developing it step by step, so that we can apply this to smaller systems and, indeed, learn about the chemical basis of thought."