Mitochondria are not only the energy packs of each living cell, but also judge and jury, deciding whether cells live or die. Given that power, aberrant mitochondria have long been suspects in degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, in which cells die and crucial neural connections are lost. The strength of those connections depends on electrical activity in the mitochondria—the higher the activity, the stronger the links. Now Yale researchers have become the first to record electrical activity in the mitochondria of living cells.

By inserting microscopically thin glass pipettes into squid cells, which are large and easy to manipulate, researcher Elizabeth A. Jonas, M.D., was able to stimulate the nerve cells with electricity for one or two seconds. Mitochondria in those cells seemed to “remember” the stimulation for 30 seconds or more. “Mitochondria have had less attention paid to them than they deserve,” said principal investigator Leonard Kaczmarek, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology. “We think they are very important in determining the strength of the connections.” The study was published in the journal Science on Nov. 12.