Posts Tagged synapse

[WEB SITE] Neuroscientists unravel how two different types of brain plasticity work on synapses


The brain’s crucial function is to allow organisms to learn and adapt to their surroundings. It does this by literally changing the connections, or synapses, between neurons, strengthening meaningful patterns of neural activity in order to store information. The existence of this process – brain plasticity – has been known for some time.

But actually, there are two different types of brain plasticity at work on synapses. One is “Hebbian plasticity”; it is the one which effectively allows for the recording of information in the synapses, named after pioneering neuroscientist Donald Hebb. The other, more recently discovered, is “homeostatic synaptic plasticity” (HSP), and, like other “homeostatic” processes in the body such as maintaining a constant body temperature, its purpose is to keep things stable. In this case, HSP ensures that the brain doesn’t build up too much activity (as is the case in epilepsy) or become too quiet (as can happen when you lose synapses in Alzheimer’s Disease).

However, little is known about how these two types of plasticity actually interact in the brain. Now, a team of neuroscientists at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, in Lisbon, Portugal, has begun to unravel the fundamental processes that happen in the synapse when the two mechanisms overlap. Their results were published in the journal iScience.

“In theory, the two types of plasticity act as opposing forces”, says Anna Hobbiss, first author of the new study, which was led by Inbal Israely. “Hebbian plasticity reacts to activity at the synapses by inciting them to get stronger while HSP reacts to it by making them weaker. We wanted to understand, on a cellular and molecular level, how the synapse deals with these two forces when they are present at the same time.”

In so doing, the authors have surprisingly shown that, contrary to what might be expected, HSP facilitates Hebbian plasticity, and thus influences memory formation and learning. This means that these two types of plasticity “may actually not be such distinct processes, but instead work together at the same synapses”, says Israely.

The team’s goal was to determine the changes in size of minute structures called dendritic spines, which are the “receiving end” of the synapse. The size of these spines changes to reflect the strength of the synaptic connection.

For this, they studied cells from the mouse hippocampus, a part of the brain which is crucial for learning. In their experiments, they blocked activity in the cells by introducing a potent neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, thus simulating the loss of input to a certain part of the brain (“think about a person suddenly becoming blind, which leads to loss of input from the eyes to the brain”, says Hobbiss).

Forty eight hours later, they mimicked a small recovery of activity at only one synapse by releasing a few molecules of a neurotransmitter called glutamate on single spines of single neurons. This was possible thanks to a very high resolution, state-of-the-art laser technology, called two-photon microscopy, which allowed the scientists to very precisely visualize and target individual dendritic spines.

As this process evolved, the team closely watched what was happening to the spines – and they saw various anatomical changes. First, the silencing of all neural activity made the spines grow in size. “The spines are like little microphones, which, when there is silence, ramp up the ‘volume’ to try and catch even the faintest noise”, Hobbiss explains.

The scientists then activated individual spines with pulses of glutamate and watched them for two hours. One of the things they thought could happen was that the size of the spines would not grow further, since they had already turned up their ‘volume’ as far is it would go. But the opposite happened: the spines grew even more, with the smaller spines showing the biggest growth.

Finally, the authors also saw growth in neighboring spines, even though the experiment only targeted one spine. “We found that after a lack of activity, other spines in the vicinity also grew, further enhancing the cell’s sensitivity to restored neural transmission”, says Hobbiss. “The cells become more sensitive, more susceptible to encode information. It is as though the ‘gain’ has been turned up”, she adds.

“The fact that neighboring spines grew together with an active spine signifies that homeostatic plasticity changes one of the hallmark features of information storage, which is that plasticity is limited to the site of information entry”, Israely explains. “So, in this sense, the different plasticity mechanisms which are at work in the neuron can cooperate to change which and how many inputs respond to a stimulus. I think this is an exciting finding of our study.”

Taken together, these results show that homeostatic plasticity can actually rev up Hebbian plasticity, the type required for storing information. “Our work adds a piece to the puzzle of how the brain performs one of its fundamental tasks: being able to encode information while still keeping a stable level of activity”, concludes Hobbiss.

The misregulation of homeostatic plasticity – the stabilizing one – has started to be implicated in human health, specifically neurodevelopmental disorders such as Fragile X syndrome and Rett syndrome as well as neurodegenerative ones such as Alzheimer’s Disease. “Perhaps this balance is what allows us to be able to learn new information while retaining stability of that knowledge over a lifetime”, says Israely.


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[BLOG POST] Brain Plasticity: How Adult Born Neurons Get Wired – Neuroscience News

FEBRUARY 3, 2017

Summary: Researchers report adult neurogenesis not only helps increase the number of cells in a neural network, it also promotes plasticity in the existing network. Additionally, they have identified the role the Bax gene plays in synaptic pruning.

Source: University of Alabama at Birmingham.

One goal in neurobiology is to understand how the flow of electrical signals through brain circuits gives rise to perception, action, thought, learning and memories.

Linda Overstreet-Wadiche, Ph.D., and Jacques Wadiche, Ph.D., both associate professors in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Neurobiology, have published their latest contribution in this effort, focused on a part of the brain that helps form memories — the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus.

The dentate gyrus is one of just two areas in the brain where new neurons are continuously formed in adults. When a new granule cell neuron is made in the dentate gyrus, it needs to get ‘wired in,’ by forming synapses, or connections, in order to contribute to circuit function. Dentate granule cells are part of a circuit that receive electrical signals from the entorhinal cortex, a cortical brain region that processes sensory and spatial input from other areas of the brain. By combining this sensory and spatial information, the dentate gyrus can generate a unique memory of an experience.

Overstreet-Wadiche and UAB colleagues posed a basic question: Since the number of neurons in the dentate gyrus increases by neurogenesis while the number of neurons in the cortex remains the same, does the brain create additional synapses from the cortical neurons to the new granule cells, or do some cortical neurons transfer their connections from mature granule cells to the new granule cells?

Their answer, garnered through a series of electrophysiology, dendritic spine density and immunohistochemistry experiments with mice that were genetically altered to produce either more new neurons or kill off newborn neurons, supports the second model — some of the cortical neurons transfer their connections from mature granule cells to the new granule cells.

This opens the door to look at how this redistribution of synapses between the old and new neurons helps the dentate gyrus function. And it opens up tantalizing questions. Does this redistribution disrupt existing memories? How does this redistribution relate to the beneficial effects of exercise, which is a natural way to increase neurogenesis?

“Over the last 10 years there has been evidence supporting a redistribution of synapses between old and new neurons, possibly by a competitive process that the new cells tend to ‘win,’” Overstreet-Wadiche said. “Our findings are important because they directly demonstrate that, in order for new cells to win connections, the old cells lose connections. So, the process of adult neurogenesis not only adds new cells to the network, it promotes plasticity of the existing network.”

Image shows a brain.

The study opens the door to look at how this redistribution of synapses between the old and new neurons helps the dentate gyrus function. image is for illustrative purposes only.

“It will be interesting to explore how neurogenesis-induced plasticity contributes to the function of this brain region,” she continued. “Neurogenesis is typically associated with improved acquisition of new information, but some studies have also suggested that neurogenesis promotes ‘forgetting’ of existing memories.”

The researchers also unexpectedly found that the Bax gene, known for its role in apoptosis, appears to also play a role in synaptic pruning in the dentate gyrus.

“There is mounting evidence that the cellular machinery that controls cell death also controls the strength and number of synaptic connections,” Overstreet-Wadiche said. “The appropriate balance of synapses strengthening and weakening, collectively termed synaptic plasticity, is critical for appropriate brain function. Hence, understanding how synaptic pruning occurs may shed light on neurodevelopmental disorders and on neurodegenerative diseases in which a synaptic pruning gone awry may contribute to pathological synapse loss.”


All of the work was performed in the Department of Neurobiology at UAB. In addition to Overstreet-Wadiche and Wadiche, co-authors of the paper, “Adult born neurons modify excitatory synaptic transmission to existing neurons,” published in eLife, are Elena W. Adlaf, Ryan J. Vaden, Anastasia J. Niver, Allison F. Manuel, Vincent C. Onyilo, Matheus T. Araujo, Cristina V. Dieni, Hai T. Vo and Gwendalyn D. King.

Much of the data came from the doctoral thesis research of Adlaf, a former UAB Neuroscience graduate student who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University.

Funding: Funding for this research came from Civitan International Emerging Scholars awards, and National Institutes of Health awards or grants NS098553, NS064025, NS065920 and NS047466.

Source: Jeff Hansen – University of Alabama at Birmingham
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Adult-born neurons modify excitatory synaptic transmission to existing neurons” by Elena W Adlaf, Ryan J Vaden, Anastasia J Niver, Allison F Manuel, Vincent C Onyilo, Matheus T Araujo, Cristina V Dieni, Hai T Vo, Gwendalyn D King, Jacques I Wadiche, and Linda Overstreet-Wadiche in eLife. Published online January 30 2017 doi:10.7554/eLife.19886

Birmingham “Brain Plasticity: How Adult Born Neurons Get Wired.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 3 February 2017.


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Adult-born neurons are continually produced in the dentate gyrus but it is unclear whether synaptic integration of new neurons affects the pre-existing circuit. Here we investigated how manipulating neurogenesis in adult mice alters excitatory synaptic transmission to mature dentate neurons. Enhancing neurogenesis by conditional deletion of the pro-apoptotic gene Bax in stem cells reduced excitatory postsynaptic currents (EPSCs) and spine density in mature neurons, whereas genetic ablation of neurogenesis increased EPSCs in mature neurons. Unexpectedly, we found that Bax deletion in developing and mature dentate neurons increased EPSCs and prevented neurogenesis-induced synaptic suppression. Together these results show that neurogenesis modifies synaptic transmission to mature neurons in a manner consistent with a redistribution of pre-existing synapses to newly integrating neurons and that a non-apoptotic function of the Bax signaling pathway contributes to ongoing synaptic refinement within the dentate circuit.

“Adult-born neurons modify excitatory synaptic transmission to existing neurons” by Elena W Adlaf, Ryan J Vaden, Anastasia J Niver, Allison F Manuel, Vincent C Onyilo, Matheus T Araujo, Cristina V Dieni, Hai T Vo, Gwendalyn D King, Jacques I Wadiche, and Linda Overstreet-Wadiche in eLife. Published online January 30 2017 doi:10.7554/eLife.19886

Source: Brain Plasticity: How Adult Born Neurons Get Wired – Neuroscience News

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