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Concept: Chemical synapse


Genetic changes in the HECT ubiquitin ligase HUWE1 are associated with intellectual disability, but it remains unknown whether HUWE1 functions in post-mitotic neurons to affect circuit function. Using genetics, pharmacology, and electrophysiology, we show that EEL-1, the HUWE1 ortholog in C. elegans, preferentially regulates GABAergic presynaptic transmission. Decreasing or increasing EEL-1 function alters GABAergic transmission and the excitatory/inhibitory (E/I) balance in the worm motor circuit, which leads to impaired locomotion and increased sensitivity to electroshock. Furthermore, multiple mutations associated with intellectual disability impair EEL-1 function. Although synaptic transmission defects did not result from abnormal synapse formation, sensitizing genetic backgrounds revealed that EEL-1 functions in the same pathway as the RING family ubiquitin ligase RPM-1 to regulate synapse formation and axon termination. These findings from a simple model circuit provide insight into the molecular mechanisms required to obtain E/I balance and could have implications for the link between HUWE1 and intellectual disability.

Concepts: Nervous system, Neuron, Genetics, Monotonic function, Action potential, Axon, Synapse, Chemical synapse


Precise coordination of synaptic connections ensures proper information flow within circuits. The activity of presynaptic organizing molecules signaling to downstream pathways is essential for such coordination, though such entities remain incompletely known. We show that LRP4, a conserved transmembrane protein known for its postsynaptic roles, functions presynaptically as an organizing molecule. In the Drosophila brain, LRP4 localizes to the nerve terminals at or near active zones. Loss of presynaptic LRP4 reduces excitatory (not inhibitory) synapse number, impairs active zone architecture, and abolishes olfactory attraction - the latter of which can be suppressed by reducing presynaptic GABAB receptors. LRP4 overexpression increases synapse number in excitatory and inhibitory neurons, suggesting an instructive role and a common downstream synapse addition pathway. Mechanistically, LRP4 functions via the conserved kinase SRPK79D to ensure normal synapse number and behavior. This highlights a presynaptic function for LRP4, enabling deeper understanding of how synapse organization is coordinated.

Concepts: Protein, Neuron, Signal transduction, Action potential, Synapse, Neurotransmitter, Chemical synapse, Postsynaptic potential


Analysis of brain ultrastructure using electron microscopy typically relies on chemical fixation. However, this is known to cause significant tissue distortion including a reduction in the extracellular space. Cryo fixation is thought to give a truer representation of biological structures, and here we use rapid, high-pressure freezing on adult mouse neocortex to quantify the extent to which these two fixation methods differ in terms of their preservation of the different cellular compartments, and the arrangement of membranes at the synapse and around blood vessels. As well as preserving a physiological extracellular space, cryo fixation reveals larger numbers of docked synaptic vesicles, a smaller glial volume, and a less intimate glial coverage of synapses and blood vessels compared to chemical fixation. The ultrastructure of mouse neocortex therefore differs significantly comparing cryo and chemical fixation conditions.

Concepts: Neuron, Brain, Blood, Biology, Cell membrane, Blood vessel, Chemical synapse, Food preservation


A great deal of interest has been focused recently on the habenula and its critical role in aversion, negative-reward and drug dependence. Using a conditional mouse model of the ACh-synthesizing enzyme choline acetyltransferase (Chat), we report that local elimination of acetylcholine (ACh) in medial habenula (MHb) neurons alters glutamate corelease and presynaptic facilitation. Electron microscopy and immuno-isolation analyses revealed colocalization of ACh and glutamate vesicular transporters in synaptic vesicles (SVs) in the central IPN. Glutamate reuptake in SVs prepared from the IPN was increased by ACh, indicating vesicular synergy. Mice lacking CHAT in habenular neurons were insensitive to nicotine-conditioned reward and withdrawal. These data demonstrate that ACh controls the quantal size and release frequency of glutamate at habenular synapses, and suggest that the synergistic functions of ACh and glutamate may be generally important for modulation of cholinergic circuit function and behavior.

Concepts: Neuron, Nicotine, Neurotransmitter, Drug addiction, Acetylcholine, Nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, Dopamine, Chemical synapse


The ability to visualize endogenous proteins in living neurons provides a powerful means to interrogate neuronal structure and function. Here we generate recombinant antibody-like proteins, termed Fibronectin intrabodies generated with mRNA display (FingRs), that bind endogenous neuronal proteins PSD-95 and Gephyrin with high affinity and that, when fused to GFP, allow excitatory and inhibitory synapses to be visualized in living neurons. Design of the FingR incorporates a transcriptional regulation system that ties FingR expression to the level of the target and reduces background fluorescence. In dissociated neurons and brain slices, FingRs generated against PSD-95 and Gephyrin did not affect the expression patterns of their endogenous target proteins or the number or strength of synapses. Together, our data indicate that PSD-95 and Gephyrin FingRs can report the localization and amount of endogenous synaptic proteins in living neurons and thus may be used to study changes in synaptic strength in vivo.

Concepts: DNA, Gene expression, Brain, Molecular biology, Action potential, Synapse, Chemical synapse, Postsynaptic potential


Synaptic inputs on dendrites are nonlinearly converted to action potential outputs, yet the spatiotemporal patterns of dendritic activation remain to be elucidated at single-synapse resolution. In rodents, we optically imaged synaptic activities from hundreds of dendritic spines in hippocampal and neocortical pyramidal neurons ex vivo and in vivo. Adjacent spines were frequently synchronized in spontaneously active networks, thereby forming dendritic foci that received locally convergent inputs from presynaptic cell assemblies. This precise subcellular geometry manifested itself during N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor-dependent circuit remodeling. Thus, clustered synaptic plasticity is innately programmed to compartmentalize correlated inputs along dendrites and may reify nonlinear synaptic integration.

Concepts: Neuron, Action potential, Axon, Synapse, Dendrite, Long-term potentiation, Chemical synapse, Cellular neuroscience


Sortilin-related receptor with LDLR class A repeats (SORLA, SORL1, or LR11) is a genetic risk factor associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Although SORLA is known to regulate trafficking of the amyloid β (Aβ) precursor protein to decrease levels of proteotoxic Aβ oligomers, whether SORLA can counteract synaptic dysfunction induced by Aβ oligomers remains unclear. Here, we show that SORLA interacts with the EphA4 receptor tyrosine kinase and attenuates ephrinA1 ligand-induced EphA4 clustering and activation to limit downstream effects of EphA4 signaling in neurons. Consistent with these findings, SORLA transgenic mice, compared with WT mice, exhibit decreased EphA4 activation and redistribution to postsynaptic densities, with milder deficits in long-term potentiation and memory induced by Aβ oligomers. Importantly, we detected elevated levels of active EphA4 in human AD brains, where EphA4 activation is inversely correlated with SORLA/EphA4 association. These results demonstrate a novel role for SORLA as a physiological and pathological EphA4 modulator, which attenuates synaptotoxic EphA4 activation and cognitive impairment associated with Aβ-induced neurodegeneration in AD.

Concepts: Alzheimer's disease, Protein, Signal transduction, Receptor tyrosine kinase, Protein kinase, Memory, Long-term potentiation, Chemical synapse


During neurotransmission, synaptic vesicles undergo multiple rounds of exo-endocytosis, involving recycling and/or degradation of synaptic proteins. While ubiquitin signaling at synapses is essential for neural function, it has been assumed that synaptic proteostasis requires the ubiquitin-proteasome system (UPS). We demonstrate here that turnover of synaptic membrane proteins via the endolysosomal pathway is essential for synaptic function. In both human and mouse, hypomorphic mutations in the ubiquitin adaptor protein PLAA cause an infantile-lethal neurodysfunction syndrome with seizures. Resulting from perturbed endolysosomal degradation, Plaa mutant neurons accumulate K63-polyubiquitylated proteins and synaptic membrane proteins, disrupting synaptic vesicle recycling and neurotransmission. Through characterization of this neurological intracellular trafficking disorder, we establish the importance of ubiquitin-mediated endolysosomal trafficking at the synapse.

Concepts: Protein, Neuron, Synapse, Epilepsy, Neurotransmitter, Chemical synapse, Synaptic vesicle, Axon terminal


Layer 4 (L4) of primary visual cortex (V1) is the main recipient of thalamocortical fibers from the dorsal lateral geniculate nucleus (LGNd). Thus, it is considered the main entry point of visual information into the neocortex and the first anatomical opportunity for intracortical visual processing before information leaves L4 and reaches supra- and infragranular cortical layers. The strength of monosynaptic connections from individual L4 excitatory cells onto adjacent L4 cells (unitary connections) is highly malleable, demonstrating that the initial stage of intracortical synaptic transmission of thalamocortical information can be altered by previous activity. However, the inhibitory network within L4 of V1 may act as an internal gate for induction of excitatory synaptic plasticity, thus providing either high fidelity throughput to supragranular layers or transmittal of a modified signal subject to recent activity-dependent plasticity. To evaluate this possibility, we compared the induction of synaptic plasticity using classical extracellular stimulation protocols that recruit a combination of excitatory and inhibitory synapses with stimulation of a single excitatory neuron onto a L4 cell. In order to induce plasticity, we paired pre- and postsynaptic activity (with the onset of postsynaptic spiking leading the presynaptic activation by 10ms) using extracellular stimulation (ECS) in acute slices of primary visual cortex and comparing the outcomes with our previously published results in which an identical protocol was used to induce synaptic plasticity between individual pre- and postsynaptic L4 excitatory neurons. Our results indicate that pairing of ECS with spiking in a L4 neuron fails to induce plasticity in L4-L4 connections if synaptic inhibition is intact. However, application of a similar pairing protocol under GABAARs inhibition by bath application of 2μM bicuculline does induce robust synaptic plasticity, long term potentiation (LTP) or long term depression (LTD), similar to our results with pairing of pre- and postsynaptic activation between individual excitatory L4 neurons in which inhibitory connections are not activated. These results are consistent with the well-established observation that inhibition limits the capacity for induction of plasticity at excitatory synapses and that pre- and postsynaptic activation at a fixed time interval can result in a variable range of plasticity outcomes. However, in the current study by virtue of having two sets of experimental data, we have provided a new insight into these processes. By randomly mixing the assorting of individual L4 neurons according to the frequency distribution of the experimentally determined plasticity outcome distribution based on the calculated convergence of multiple individual L4 neurons onto a single postsynaptic L4 neuron, we were able to compare then actual ECS plasticity outcomes to those predicted by randomly mixing individual pairs of neurons. Interestingly, the observed plasticity profiles with ECS cannot account for the random assortment of plasticity behaviors of synaptic connections between individual cell pairs. These results suggest that connections impinging onto a single postsynaptic cell may be grouped according to plasticity states.

Concepts: Neuron, Brain, Action potential, Long-term potentiation, Lateral geniculate nucleus, Chemical synapse, Neurophysiology, Postsynaptic potential


Understanding memory formation, storage and retrieval requires knowledge of the underlying neuronal circuits. In Drosophila, the mushroom body (MB) is the major site of associative learning. We reconstructed the morphologies and synaptic connections of all 983 neurons within the three functional units, or compartments, that compose the adult MB’s α lobe, using a dataset of isotropic 8-nm voxels collected by focused ion-beam milling scanning electron microscopy. We found that Kenyon cells (KCs), whose sparse activity encodes sensory information, each make multiple en passant synapses to MB output neurons (MBONs) in each compartment. Some MBONs have inputs from all KCs, while others differentially sample sensory modalities. Only six percent of KC>MBON synapses receive a direct synapse from a dopaminergic neuron (DAN). We identified two unanticipated classes of synapses, KC>DAN and DAN>MBON. DAN activation produces a slow depolarization of the MBON in these DAN>MBON synapses and can weaken memory recall.

Concepts: Nervous system, Neuron, Brain, Action potential, Axon, Synapse, Dopamine, Chemical synapse