Making new synapses with Sema4D

There are two main types of synaptic connections in the mammalian brain: excitatory glutamatergic synapses and inhibitory GABAergic synapses. The balance between excitatory and inhibitory inputs a neuron receives regulates the overall activity of neuronal networks; disruptions to this balance can cause epilepsy.

A new paper in J. Neuroscience from the Paradis lab shows that treatment of cultured neurons with the extracellular domain of the protein Sema4D causes a rapid increase (i.e. within 30 minutes) in the density of functional GABAergic synapses. Further, addition of Sema4D to neurons drives GABAergic synapse formation through a previously unappreciated mechanism: the splitting of pre-existing assemblies of the Gephyrin scaffolding protein. To our knowledge this is the fastest demonstration of synapse formation reported thus far and has significant implications for our understanding of the mechanisms of GABAergic synapse formation.

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 5.03.05 PMWhile the underlying mechanism of epileptogenesis is largely unknown, recurrent seizures emerge when there is an increase in network activity. One possible therapeutic treatment would be to restore normal network activity by increasing network inhibition. In an in vitro model of epilepsy, acute treatment with the protein Sema4D rapidly silences neuronal hyperexcitability, suggesting a possible use of Sema4D as a disease-modifying treatment for epilepsy.

Lead authors on the paper were Marissa Kuzirian, a grad student in the Neuroscience Ph.D. program, and Anna Moore, a Brandeis Neuroscience postdoctoral fellow.

How does a hard-wired simple circuit generate multiple behaviors?

In a paper appearing in last week’s issue of Neuron, members of the Sengupta Lab and their collaborators from the Bargmann Lab describe how a fixed neural circuit produces multiple behaviors in a context-dependent manner.  The study was led by former Brandeis post-doctoral fellow Kyuhyung Kim in the Sengupta Lab (currently Assistant Professor at DGIST, Korea) and Rockefeller student Heeun Jang in the Bargmann Lab. Also involved in the study were current Brandeis MCB students Scott Neal and Danna Zeiger, and Dongshin Kim, the head of the Brandeis Microfluidics Facility.

For this study the researchers used the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. The nervous system of C. elegans consists of only 302 neurons (in the adult hermaphrodite) whose anatomical connectivities are well-mapped. Despite its relatively small nervous system, C. elegans exhibits a wide range of behaviors in response to environmental stimuli. For instance, C. elegans exhibits varied responses to pheromones – small chemical substances used for intra-specific communication. Some pheromones are repulsive to adult hermaphrodite C. elegans but neutral to male C. elegans. However, reducing the function of the neuropeptide Y-like receptor NPR-1 results in hermaphrodites now exhibiting neutral pheromone responses and males becoming strongly attracted. The researchers asked how the sex and neuromodulatory state of the animal allows it to interpret the pheromone stimulus differently to generate distinct behavioral responses.

To answer this question, the researchers used behavioral assays, genetic manipulations of neuronal output, and in vivo measurements of pheromone-induced neuronal activity (using genetically encoded calcium sensors and customized microfluidics devices designed by the Brandeis Microfluidics Facility). They found that flexible output of a neuronal ‘hub-and-spoke’ circuit motif was responsible for generating these distinct pheromone responses under different conditions.

In this circuit, pheromone-sensing neurons ASK and ADL are connected to the central RMG motor/interneuron by gap junctions (see Figure). Jang et al. showed that in hermaphrodites with high levels of NPR-1 activity, the ADL sensory neurons respond strongly to a specific pheromone component and drive avoidance behavior via their chemical synapses to command interneurons for locomotion. However, sexual dimorphism in the circuit results in males having reduced ADL pheromone responses.  Moreover, Jang et al. showed that ADL synaptic output in males is further decreased via RMG and ASK-mediated antagonism (see Figure). As a result, males are indifferent to this pheromone.

The next issue the authors addressed is the role of NPR-1 activity in regulating pheromone responses. The Bargmann Lab had previously shown that high NPR-1 activity inhibits RMG, and under these conditions, pheromone responses of the ASK sensory neurons are low. Conversely, when NPR-1 activity is reduced or absent, ASK pheromone responses are enhanced. Jang et al. found that in the absence of NPR-1 activity, ADL chemical synaptic output in response to pheromones is antagonized by the RMG-ASK gap junction circuit. In other words, avoidance mediated by ADL chemical synaptic output is balanced by attraction mediated by the RMG-ASK gap junction circuit, resulting in hermaphrodites being neither attracted to nor avoiding this pheromone. In males with reduced NPR-1 activity the same effects are observed, however, since the ADL pheromone response is already lower in males, the RMG-ASK attraction-mediating arm “wins” resulting in attraction to pheromones.  The authors refer to these as overlapping ‘push-pull’ circuits in analogy with electronic circuits.

These results begin to explain how a small fixed circuit can generate a remarkable range of behaviors via alteration of sensory response properties as well as choice of specific synaptic output pathway as a function of neuromodulatory state and sex. The general theme of a circuit functioning differently under different neuromodulatory conditions has been extensively studied in the Marder Lab in the crustacean nervous system, and is an important principle to be kept in mind when interpreting functionality from structurally described connectomes.

Jang H(*), Kim K(*), Neal SJ, Macosko E, Kim D, Butcher RA, Zeiger DM, Bargmann CI, Sengupta P. Neuromodulatory State and Sex Specify Alternative Behaviors through Antagonistic Synaptic Pathways in C. elegans. Neuron. 2012;75(4):585-92.

To sleep, perchance to learn?

Sleep deprivation is ubiquitous in today’s society, and we have all felt the effects of sleep loss on our ability to function optimally, physically and especially mentally. In particular, it has become clear that the brain requires sleep to efficiently establish many forms of long-term memory. However, it is still unknown what sleep deprivation actually does to the brain to impair its function. In a recently published review in the journal Cellular Signalling, authors Christopher G. Vecsey from Brandeis University and Robbert Havekes and Ted Abel from the University of Pennsylvania have tried to capture the current state of our knowledge about the molecular and cellular effects of sleep deprivation that could explain why sleep loss is so detrimental for memory formation. The review focuses primarily on memories for events and places, which are thought to be formed and stored in the area of the brain called the hippocampus.

A key approach to learn about the nitty-gritty effects of sleep deprivation has been research in rodents. Therefore, the authors begin by summarizing how sleep deprivation studies are carried out in rodents, and how sleep deprivation affects memory and several signaling pathways in the brain. Notably, they review the effects of sleep loss on neurotransmitter systems such as acetylcholine, glutamate, and GABA, all of which could potentially modulate learning and memory. The authors also discuss some of the newest and most exciting studies on the topic of sleep loss, including a handful of experiments in which researchers have been able to reverse the effects of sleep deprivation through pharmacological treatments. For example, the authors describe one of their own studies in which sleep deprivation in mice caused memory deficits and reduced signaling through the cAMP pathway, which is known to be crucial for long-term memory. This molecular effect was likely caused by accelerated breakdown of cAMP by phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4). When mice were treated with a PDE4 inhibitor during the period of sleep deprivation, memory formation remained unaffected. Rescue of memory defects were also obtained in separate studies in which rodents were treated either with nicotine, caffeine, or CPT, an antagonist of the adenosine A1 receptor. Two related studies also found that the effects of sleep deprivation on memory could be ameliorated by prevention of transmitter release from cells in the brain called glia. This was the first indication that brain cells other than neurons are impacted by sleep deprivation and that they contribute to the effects of sleep loss on the ability to remember new information.

As the authors mention, goals for studies in the immediate future will be to identify additional ways that sleep deprivation affects the brain, determine why sleep deprivation targets these molecules, and discover how these targets interact with each other to impair the normal function of the brain. Finally, hopefully our growing knowledge can be used to develop treatments for the cognitive deficits produced by sleep loss in people, especially those who have impaired sleep due to a medical condition, such as insomnia, chronic pain, sleep apnea, or one of the many neurodegenerative or psychiatric disorders associated with disturbed sleep patterns.

Christopher G. Vecsey is a postdoctoral fellow in the Griffith Lab at Brandeis, where he continues to work on interactions between sleep and learning. Chris is supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Protein Flexing: A New Look at Transcription-Coupled DNA Repair

Alexandra M. Deaconescu, a research associate in the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center and 2008-2010 Fellow of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, together with Professor of Biochemistry and HHMI Investigator Nikolaus Grigorieff and collaborators in the Laboratory of Dr. Irina Artsimovitch at Ohio State University have just published a new study in PNAS, which delineates novel mechanistic details of transcription-coupled DNA repair.

In any cell, there is intense interplay between various DNA-based transactions, such as replication, transcription and DNA repair. More than twenty years ago, it was discovered that DNA lesions that cause stalling of RNA polymerase molecules elicit a form of preferential nucleotide excision repair (NER) that exists in both eubacteria and eukaryotes, and specifically targets the transcribed DNA strand. Termed transcription-coupled DNA repair (TCR), the process is found to be carried out in bacteria by an ATPase called Mfd or TRCF (see Figure, right). In TCR, TRCF performs two functions: 1) it recognizes a damage-stalled RNA polymerase (RNAP), then dissociates it off the DNA using energy derived from ATP hydrolysis and 2) it recruits DNA repair enzymes via binding to the UvrA subunit of the Uvr(A)BC NER machinery [1].   The Uvr(A)BC machinery is one of the main players in bacterial DNA repair, and distinguishes itself from other DNA repair proteins by its ability to repair a remarkably diverse repertoire of lesions by utilizing a “cut and patch” mechanism, whereby an oligonucleotide containing the damage is excised and the gap later filled.

The cellular role of TRCFs extends beyond TCR. Because of their ability to forward translocate and dissociate stalled RNAPs (or  “backtracked” RNAPs that have slid backwards on the template) [2], TRCFs are also involved in transcription elongation regulation [3, 4], resolution of head-on collisions of the transcription apparatus with the DNA replication machinery [5], and antibiotic resistance [6, 7]. In humans, the effects of impaired TCR are systemic and complex. Mutations in the transcription-repair coupling factor CSB lead to Cockayne Syndrome [8], a progeroid (accelerated-aging) disease characterized by severe developmental abnormalities and neurodegeneration, and whose etiology is currently poorly understood.

To elucidate the mechanism underpinning UvrA recruitment by TRCF, Deaconescu crystallized and solved the X-ray structure of a core UvrA-TRCF complex (Figure, left) demonstrating that UvrA binding involves unmasking of a conserved intramolecular surface within TRCF via a gating motion of the C-terminal domain (red in Figure above). Despite significant effort so far, Deaconescu is still trying to coax nucleotide-bound TRCF to form crystals suitable for X-ray diffraction. These would be highly informative because ATP is required for DNA binding, and its hydrolysis leads to TRCF translocation on dsDNA and ultimately release of RNAP off the damaged template.  Because diffracting crystals eluded her, and to further find out how ADP/ATP modulate the structure of TRCF, Deaconescu learned small-angle X-ray scattering techniques suitable for probing TRCF in solution in the absence and presence of nucleotides, thus circumventing the need for highly-ordered crystals. Then, the Brandeis team and their collaborators at Ohio State employed domain-locking disulfide engineering in conjunction with functional assays to gain a deeper understanding of what TRCF looks like during its catalytic cycle and upon binding to UvrA.  They find that the two main functions of TRCF (RNAP release and UvrA binding) can be uncoupled, suggesting that UvrA recruitment may only occur during/post RNAP release, and not upon RNAP binding as had been proposed earlier in the literature [9]. Furthermore, they show that the ternary elongation complex (consisting of RNAP, template and nascent RNA), but not naked DNA, significantly stimulates ATP hydrolysis by TRCF. Thus, bacterial TRCF operates in a manner reminiscent of that utilized by eukaryotic chromatin remodeling factors, and are preferentially stimulated by nucleosomes over naked DNA substrates.

Deaconescu previously “looked” at TCR using X-rays – as a graduate student she solved the first structure of an intact transcription-repair coupling factor from any organism using X-ray crystallography [10]. She now hopes to reconstitute the larger intermediates that form during TCR and bridge low- with high-resolution information using hybrid structural methods, particularly electron cryo-microscopy, and ultimately formulate a cogent model of how TRCFs operate in cells.

Otten named Damon Runyon Fellow

Renee Otten, a postdoctoral fellow in the Kern lab at Brandeis, has been awarded a November 2011 Damon Runyon Fellowship to support his postdoctoral research. Otten received his Ph.D. in 2011 from the University of Groningen, working on applying NMR spectroscopic methods to studying the relationship between protein structure and dynamics. The fellowship will support his continued efforts to use NMR to study dynamics and enzyme catalysis in protein kinases.

A biologically plausible transform for visual recognition

People can recognize objects despite changes in their visual appearance that stem from changes in viewpoint. Looking at a television set, we can follow the action displayed on it even if we don’t look straight at it, if we sit closer than usual, or if we are lying sideways on a couch. The object identity is thus invariant to simple transformations of its visual appearance in the 2-D plane such as translation, scaling and rotation. There is experimental evidence for such invariant representations in the brain, and many competing theories of varying biological plausibility that try to explain how those representations arise. A recent paper detailing a biologcally plausible algorithmic model of this phenomenon is the result of a collaboration between Brandeis Neuroscience graduate student Pavel Sountsov, postdoctoral fellow David Santucci and Professor of Biology John Lisman.

Many theories of invariant recognition rely on the computation of spatial frequency of visual stimuli using the Fourier transform. This, however, is problematic from a biological realism standpoint, as the Fourier transform requires the global analysis of the entire visual field. The novelty of the model proposed in the paper is the use of a local filter to compute spatial frequency. This filter consists of a detector of pairs of parallel edges. It can be implemented in the brain by multiplicatively combining the activities of pairs of edge detectors that detect edges of similar orientations, but in different locations in the visual field. By varying the separation of the receptive fields of those detectors (thus varying the separation of the detected edges), different spatial frequencies can be detected. The model shows how this type of detector can be used to build up invariant representations of visual stimuli. It also makes predictions about how the activity of neurons in higher visual areas should depend on the spatial frequency content of visual stimuli.

Sountsov P, Santucci DM, Lisman JE. A Biologically Plausible Transform for Visual Recognition that is Invariant to Translation, Scale, and Rotation. Frontiers in computational neuroscience. 2011;5:53.

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