CaMKII: some basics to remember

The theme of Thursday’s Volen Center for Complex Systems annual retreat will be Breakthroughs in understanding the role of CaMKII in synaptic function and memory and honors the pioneering work of John Lisman. To help bring non-experts up to speed, we asked Neuroscience Ph.D. students Stephen D. Alkins and Johanna G. Flyer-Adams from the Griffith lab at Brandeis for a quick primer on CaMKII.

What’s a protein kinase? 

Protein kinases are enzymes that act by adding phosphate groups to other proteins – a process called phosphorylation. Phosphorylation of a protein usually initiates a cascade of downstream effects such as changes in the protein’s 3D shape,  changes in its interactions with other proteins, changes in its activity and changes in its localization. In causing these types of changes, kinases facilitate some of the most essential cellular and molecular processes required for survival and proper functionality.

Aren’t there lots of protein kinases? What makes CaMKII special? 

Among the roughly 500+ genes in the human genome encoding protein kinases, a kinase known as calcium (Ca2+)/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (CaMKII) phosphorylates serine or threonine residues in a broad array of target proteins.  Though found in many different tissues (skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle, spleen, etc.), there is a lot of CaMKII in the brain– about 1% of total forebrain protein and 2% of total hippocampal protein (in rats). Previous research, including pivotal contributions from the Lisman Lab at Brandeis University working in mammalian brain, has identified CaMKII as a cellular and molecular correlate of learning and memory through its multiple roles governing normal neuronal structure, synaptic strength, plasticity, and homeostasis. The Griffith Lab has been instrumental in demonstrating that these roles of the kinase are conserved in invertebrates.

Why do we think CaMKII might play a role in memory?

a) Location!

As previously mentioned, CaMKII accounts for up to 2% of all proteins in memory-important brain regions like the hippocampus. It’s also highly abundant at neuronal synapses, where neurons communicate with each other.

b) Function!

Memory is thought to require a process called long term potentiation (LTP) where two neurons, in response to environmental changes, will change the strength of the synaptic connections by which they communicate with each other—these changes will last even after the environmental input has disappeared. We know that CaMKII is required for LTP. We also know that the increases in neuronal calcium levels that accompany neuronal activation and cause LTP also allow CaMKII to phosphorylate itself. This autophosphorylation of CaMKII changes its kinase activity so that CaMKII can stay active well past the window of neuronal activation, essentially ‘storing’ the memory of previous neuronal activity—much like LTP!

c) Structure!

Ultimately, the issue with ‘molecular memory’ is that all proteins degrade over time, causing one to ask how we can remember things for so long when the original proteins that stored that memory no longer exist. CaMKII is such an exciting candidate for molecular memory because it is mostly found as a dodecameric holoenzyme—this means that CaMKII likes to exist as a big assembly of twelve identical CaMKII subunits. However, each CaMKII subunit retains its kinase activity even when all twelve are assembled. What’s interesting is that the autophosphorylation and activation of one CaMKII subunit (which happens when neurons are activated and intracellular calcium levels rise) actually makes it easier for the other CaMKII subunits in the twelve-unit holoenzyme to become autophosphorylated and activated. This means that maybe when an activated subunit is old and get degraded, another new CaMKII subunit could take its place among the twelve-unit holoenzyme—and become activated just like the old subunit, allowing for the ‘molecular memory’ to last beyond when proteins degrade!

CaMKII phosphorylation and activationCaMKII in more detail…

Calcium binds to the small protein calmodulin and forms (Ca2+/CaM), which acts as a ‘second messenger’ that increases in concentration when neurons are activated. CaMKII relies on calcium/calmodulin (Ca2+/CaM) binding to activate an individual domain containing a regulatory segment.  In conditions of low calcium, elements within the CaMKII regulatory segment will have less affinity for (Ca2+/CaM) binding, keeping CaMKII in an autoinhibited state.  In conditions of high calcium, (Ca2+/CaM) binding initiates phosphorylation at three threonine residue sites, including Thr286 which prevents rebinding of the regulatory segment, thus keeping CaMKII constitutively active even when calcium levels fall.  In this activated state CaMKII can autophosphorylate inactivated intra-kinase domains, and will undergo subunit exchange with neighboring inactivated CaMKII holoenzymes. Furthermore, mutation of CaMKII residues or binding sites in target proteins, such as postsynaptic glutamate (AMPA) receptors, disrupts establishment of long-term potentiation (LTP) in neurons.  Together, CaMKII’s role as molecular switch that bidirectionally, and autonomously regulates activity in neurons has earned it the illustrious title of a “memory molecule.”

What amino-acid manipulations might I hear about?

a) T286A:

Changing a threonine in a phosphorylation site to an alanine prevents phosphorylation at that site. Blocking Thr286 phosphorylation with a T286A mutation prevents CaMKII generation of autonomous activity that disrupts neuronal activity and results in learning deficits.

b) T286D:

Changing a threonine to an aspartate puts a negative charge at the site, often making it act like it’s always phosphorylated. In the case of CaMKII, a T286D mutation renders the kinase constitutively active, which can interrupt normal LTP induction and normal memory storage and acquisition.

To learn more:

Leslie Griffith Receives SASTRA-Obaid Siddiqi Award

SASTRA award

Model depicts how the integration of light, ambient temperature, the circadian clock and homeostatic sleep drive sets the balance between daytime and nighttime sleep [Parisky, K.M., Agosto Rivera, J.L., Donelson, N.C., Kotecha, S. and Griffith, L.C. (2016) “Reorganization of sleep by temperature in Drosophila requires light, the homeostat and the circadian clock” Curr Biol 26:882-892]

Leslie C. Griffith, Nancy Lurie Marks Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Volen National Center for Complex Systems, has received the SASTRA–Obaid Siddiqi Award for excellence in life sciences. The prize is given by the Shanmugha Arts, Science, Technology & Research Academy (SASTRA) University in Thanjavur, India. Siddiqi was a pioneering molecular biologist and founder of the Molecular Biology Unit of the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research.

Griffith’s interests range from the biochemistry of neuronal signal transduction, in particular the role of CaMKII in memory formation, to the hierarchical relationships between complex behaviors such as sleep and learning. She has contributed to our understanding of these issues using genetic approaches in Drosophila melanogaster and believes that model systems have an important place in pioneering the understanding of basic biological processes. Her lab has been active in developing tools that allow interrogation of molecular and cellular processes with temporal and spatial resolution in freely behaving animals to bridge the molecule-behavior gap.

Griffith received the award on February 28, 2017.

Neurons that make flies sleep

Sleep is known to be regulated by both intrinsic (what time is it?) and environmental factors (is it hot today?). How exactly these factors are integrated at the cellular level is a hot topic for investigation, given the prevalence of sleep disorders. Researchers in the Rosbash and Griffith labs are pursuing the question in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, to take advantage of the genetic tools in the model system and the excellent understanding of circadian rhythms in the fly.

Like other animals, the fruit fly displays a robust activity/sleep pattern, which consists of a morning (M) activity peak, a middle-day siesta, an evening (E) activity peak and nighttime sleep. M and E peaks are controlled by different subgroups of circadian neurons such as wake-promoting M and E clock cells.

In a paper just published in Nature, Brandeis postdoctoral fellow Fang Guo and coworkers identify a small group of circadian neurons, a subset of the glutamatergic DN1 (gDN1s) cells, which have a critical role in both types of regulation. The authors manipulated the gDN1s activity by using recently developed optogenetics tools, and found activity of those neurons is both necessary and sufficient to promote sleep.


The cartoon model illustrates how the circadian neuron negative feedback set the timing of activity and siesta of Drosophila. The arousal-promoting M cells (sLNv) release pigment-dispersing factor (PDF) peptide to promote M activity at dawn. PDF peptide can activate gDN1s, which release glutamate to inhibit arousal-promoting M and E (LNds) cells and cause a middle-day siesta. At evening, the gDN1s activity is reduced to trough levels and release E cell activity from inhibition.

DN1s enhance baseline sleep by acting as feedback inhibitors of previously identified wake-promoting M and E clock cells, making them the first known sleep-promoting neurons in this circadian circuit. It is already known that M cell can activate gDN1s at dawn. Thus the daily activity-sleep pattern of Drosophila is timed by the circadian neuron negative feedback circuitry (see Figure).  More interestingly, by using in vivo calcium reporters, the authors reveal that the activity of the gDN1s is also shown to be sexually dimorphic, explaining the well-known difference in daytime sleep between males and females. DN1s also have a key role in mediating the effects of temperature on daytime sleep. The circadian and environmental responsiveness of gDN1s positions them to be key players in shaping sleep to the needs of the individual animal.

Authors on the paper include postdocs Guo, Junwei Yu and Weifei Luo, staff member Kate Abruzzi, and Brandeis graduate Hyung Jae Jung ’15 (Biology/HSSP).

Guo F, Yu J, Jung HJ, Abruzzi KC, Luo W, Griffith LC, Rosbash M. Circadian neuron feedback controls the Drosophila sleep-activity profile. Nature. 2016.

Fruit flies alter their sleep to beat the heat

Do you have trouble sleeping at night in the summer when it is really hot?

Does a warm sunny day make you want to take a nap?

You are not alone — fruit flies also experience changes in their sleep patterns when ambient temperature is high. In a new paper in Current Biology, research scientist Katherine Parisky and her co-workers from the Griffith lab show that hot temperatures cause animals to sleep more during the day and less at night, and then investigate the mechanisms governing the behavior.

The increase in daytime sleep is caused by a complex interplay between light and the circadian clock. The balance between daytime gains and nighttime losses at high temperatures is also influenced by homeostatic processes that work to keep total daily sleep amounts constant. This study shows how the nervous system deals with changes caused by environmental conditions to maintain normal operations.

Parisky KM, Agosto Rivera JL, Donelson NC, Kotecha S, Griffith LC. Reorganization of Sleep by Temperature in Drosophila Requires Light, the Homeostat, and the Circadian Clock. Curr Biol. 2016.

Sleep and memory are connected by a pair of neurons in Drosophila

In a recent post on the Fly on the Wall blog, Neuroscience grad student Bethany Christmann talks about recently published research from Leslie Griffith’s lab:

 … [How are sleep and behavior] connected in the brain? Does sleep simply permit memory storage to take place, such that the part of the brain involved in memory just takes advantage of sleep whenever it can? Or are sleep and memory physically connected, and the same mechanism in the brain is involved in both? In a recent study published in eLife, researchers in the Griffith lab may have [uncovered the answer]. They found that a single pair of neurons, known as the DPM neurons, are actively involved in both sleep and memory storage in fruit flies.

Haynes PR, Christmann BL, Griffith LC. A single pair of neurons links sleep to memory consolidation in Drosophila melanogaster. eLife. 2015;4.

The “Fly on the Wall” Blog

fruit_fly_drawingBethany Christmann, a Neuroscience Ph.D. student in Leslie Griffith’s lab at Brandeis University has created a blog titled Fly on the Wall. The blog’s purpose is to introduce fly science to a broader audience of non-fly scientists. Check it out if you want to learn more about fly life, current research and how fruit fly research has already made huge contributions to understanding human biology and will continue to do so in the future.

Learn more about research in the Griffith Lab.


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