You may be familiar with how doctors use pictures from magnetic resonance imaging machines, better known as MRIs, to diagnose injuries and other health problems. But did you know that NIAAA scientists have another technology that harnesses the power of strong magnets to study receptors in the brain that could be targets for alcohol therapies? NIAAA’s Intramural Section on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) uses an NMR spectrometer, which utilizes a strong magnetic field and radio waves to delineate the structure of brain proteins and of the membranes they are embedded in, allowing scientists to design selective new drug molecules that bind to these receptors.
Unlike an MRI machine, an NMR spectrometer is not used directly on patients, but rather on very small samples, which are usually reconstituted highly purified protein-coupled membrane receptors, but could also be a preparation of natural cell membranes. These samples model the highly variable composition of a human cell membrane, allowing scientists to study its properties, including the function of certain receptors. The NMR spectrometer provides detailed information about the shape, dynamics, and interactions of molecules, and has been used in NIAAA studies to deepen our understanding of how substances such as docosahexaenoic acid—an omega-3 fatty acid—interact with membrane receptors. Findings from NIAAA’s NMR studies have important implications for improving our understanding of human nutrition, including the influence of alcohol on the composition and function of membranes.

Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics

Above, NIAAA scientists Drs. Olivier Soubias, Klaus Gawrisch, and Walter Teague (L-R) are pictured in the room that was specially constructed to house the “big magnet.” This device is powerful enough to resolve protein structures but is also so sensitive that it needs to be protected from temperature changes and vibrations in order to produce accurate data.


Reprinted from the NIAAA Spectrum, Volume 8, Issue 2, June 2016.