Scientists have long wondered how nerve cell activity in the brain's hippocampus, the epicenter for learning and memory, is controlled — too much synaptic communication between neurons can trigger a seizure, and too little impairs information processing, promoting neurodegeneration. Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center say they now have an answer. In the January 10 issue of Neuron, they report that synapses that link two different groups of nerve cells in the hippocampus serve as a kind of "volume control," keeping neuronal activity throughout that region at a steady, optimal level.
"Think of these special synapses like the fingers of God and man touching in Michelangelo's famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel," says the study's senior investigator, Daniel Pak, PhD, an associate professor of pharmacology. "Now substitute the figures for two different groups of neurons that need to perform smoothly. The touching of the fingers, or synapses, controls activity levels of neurons within the hippocampus."
The hippocampus is a processing unit that receives input from the cortex and consolidates that information in terms of learning and memory. Neurons known as granule cells, located in the hippocampus' dentate gyrus, receive transmissions from the cortex. Those granule cells then pass that information to the other set of neurons (those in the CA3 region of the hippocampus, in this study) via the synaptic fingers.
Those fingers dial up, or dial down, the volume of neurotransmission from the granule cells to the CA3 region to keep neurotransmission in the learning and memory areas of the hippocampus at an optimal flow — a concept known as homeostatic plasticity. "If granule cells try to transmit too much activity, we found, the synaptic junction tamps down the volume of transmission by weakening their connections, allowing the proper amount of information to travel to CA3 neurons," says Pak. "If there is not enough activity being transmitted by the granule cells, the synapses become stronger, pumping up the volume to CA3 so that information flow remains constant."
There are many such touching fingers in the hippocampus, connecting the so-called "mossy fibers" of the granule cells to neurons in the CA3 region. But importantly, not every one of the billions of neurons in the hippocampus needs to set its own level of transmission from one nerve cell to the other, says Pak.
To explain, he uses another analogy. "It had previously been thought that neurons act separately like cars, each working to keep their speed at a constant level even though signal traffic may be fast or slow. But we wondered how these neurons could process learning and memory information efficiently, while also regulating the speed by which they process and communicate that information.
"We believe, based on our study, that only the mossy fiber synapses on the CA3 neurons control the level of activity for the hippocampus — they are like the engine on a train that sets the speed for all the other cars, or neurons, attached to it," Pak says. "That frees up the other neurons to do the job they are tasked with doing — processing and encoding information in the forms of learning and memory."
Not only does the study offer a new model for how homeostatic plasticity in the hippocampus can co-exist with learning and memory, it also suggests a new therapeutic avenue to help patients with uncontrollable seizures, he says.
"The CA3 region is highly susceptible to seizures, so if we understand how homeostasis is maintained in these neurons, we could potentially manipulate the system. When there is an excessive level of CA3 neuronal activity in a patient, we could learn how to therapeutically turn it down."
Georgetown University Medical Center: http://gumc.georgetown.edu
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
Some people have non-human neighbors of the usual, inspiring kind: Bald eagles and bears, sea lions and salamanders, the sort of creatures found in nature documentaries intoned by deep-voiced narrators who plead on our planet's behalf. But I live in New York City. The star of this show, a charismatic megafauna of my own particular wilderness, is none other than the rat — and what science is teaching us may change how we think of this oft-reviled creature, and maybe even ourselves.
An Oregon company has developed a high-tech process for turning sewage into pure drinking water. Now it's asking the state for permission to give its recycled water to a group of home brewers.
Skull cap of Homo sapiens found in Israeli cave hints at time and place of cross-species mingling
Is there a conscious generosity in how ravens or bats share food, or monkeys or elephants save others, or is it simply the selfish instinct of group survival?
DNA research into early canine remains also raises clues about migration patterns of ancient humans
Research on 85 families finds less than a third of siblings with autism carry the same genetic risk, and in nearly 70% of cases known contributory mutations do not overlap
Flanked by curious fish and tended by a diver, these coral nurseries off the coast of the Florida Keys are being grown as transplants for damaged reefs
If we could turn back the clock millions of years, would animals evolve in the same way? Genome data suggests that their options would be limited
Ah, motherhood. I don’t know anything about it, but I heard there’s a lot of, like, sacrifice and stuff. Not only do you have to bring the brat into the world, but then you have to feed it for at least 18 years or you get in big trouble. That’s a lot of pressure.
It’s three in the morning in South Africa, in the middle of winter. Temperatures have dropped to just …