The incredible combinatorial complexity of cellular biochemistry

K8, K14, K20, T92, P125, S129, S137, Y176, T195, K276, T305, T308, T312, P313, T315, T326, S378, T450, S473, S477, S479. No, this is not some game of cosmic bingo. They represent amino acid positions in Protein Kinase B (AKT).

In the 1 letter amino acid code K is lysine T, threonine, S serine, P proline, Y tyrosine.

All 21 amino acids are modified (or not) one of them in 3 ways. This gives 4 * 2^20 = 4,194,304 possible post-translational modifications. Will we study all of them? It’s pretty easy to substitute alanine for serine or threonine making an unmodifiable position, or to substitute aspartic acid for threonine or serine making a phosphorylation mimic which is pretty close to phosphoserine or phosphothreonine, creating even more possibilities for study.

Most of the serines, threonines, tyrosines listed are phosphorylated, but two of the threonines are Nacetyl glucosylated. The two prolines are hydroxylated in the ring. The lysines can be methylated, acetylated, ubiquitinated, sumoylated. I did take the trouble to count the number of serines in the complete amino acid sequence and there are 24, of which only 6 are phosphorylated — so the phosphorylation pattern is likely to be specific and selected for. Too lazy do the same for lysine, threonine, tyrosine and proline. Here’s a link to the full sequence if you want to do it — http://www.uniprot.org/uniprot/P31749

The phosphorylations at each serine/threonine/tyrosine are carried out by not more than one of the following 8 kinases (CK2, IKKepsilon, ACK1,TBK1, PDK1, GSK3alpha, mTORC2 and CDK2)

AKT contains some 481 amino acids, divided (by humans for the purposes of comprehension) into 4 regions Pleckstrin Homology (#1 – #108), linker (#108 – #152) catalytic –e.g. kinase (#152 – #409),regulatory (#409 – #481).

This is from an excellent review of the functions of AKT in Cell vol. 169 pp. 381 – 3405 ’17. It only takes up the first two pages of the review before the functionality of AKT is even discussed.

This raises the larger issue of the possibility of human minds comprehending cellular biochemistry.

This is just one protein, although a very important one. Do you think we’ll ever be able to conduct enough experiments, to figure out what each modification (along or in combination) does to the many functions of AKT (and there are many)?

Now design a drug to affect one of the actions of AKT (particularly since AKT is the cellular homolog of a viral oncogene). Quite a homework assignment.

Is Martin Burke the anti-Christ for synthetic organic chemistry?

Will a machine put synthetic organic chemists out of business. Is its proponent and inventor Martin Burke the anti-Christ? 2 years ago he thought that he’d need 5,000 building blocks to make 282,487 natural products. Now he’s down to 1,400, 20 years and 1 Billion dollars [ Science vol. 356 pp. 231 – 232 ’17 ].

Back in the day we studied the zillions of terpene natural products built from various machinations of just the isopentyl group. Does he really need another 1,399?

The synthesis is a modification of the Suzuki synthesis in which R-B(OH)2 and R’ – X are coupled by palladium to form R -R’. It uses MIDA (HOOC CH2 NCH3 CH2 COOH — N-MethylIminodiAcetic acid) which wraps itself around the boron and shuts down further synthesis.

In 2008 Burke found that MIDA boronates stick to silica when methanol and ether are both present, and then drop off when tetrahydrofuran (THF) is present. This allows catch and release. For purification they can run the compounds through a silica containing vial.

In 2015 some 200 building blocks with the halogen and MIDA capped boronic acid were availablle commercially.

Burke hooked up with a computer scientist to look at the structures of the 282,487 and break them down into fragments needing only carbon carbon bond formation — a fascinating problem in graph theory.

Derek did a post on this a few years ago. Hopefully he’ll do another.

Because they aren’t there

George Mallory tried 3 times to be the first to climb Everest dying on his last attempt. When asked why he was so obsessed, he achieved immortality by saying “because it’s there”. Chemists have spent 60 years trying to synthesize carbon nanobelts “because they aren’t there”.

Well a group of Japanese chemists finally did it [ Science vol. 356 pp. 172 -175 ’17 ] It’s not quite the ultimate belt because the 6 membered rings are staggered as they are in phenacenes –https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenacene. There are 6 three ringed phenacenes in the structure, and the diameter of the ring is 8.324 Angstroms. There is no question that they got the compound as they crystallized it and have bond lengths for all.

If you look at the paper, this is a zig zag structure rather than a linear poly anthracene. The bond lengths show that every other ring has symmetric bond lengths midway between sp2 and sp3 (e.g. it’s aromatic), while the other ring clearly is not.

It be interesting to measure the chemical shifts of the C-H bonds over the center of the ring — if they could make a paraCyclophane-type molecule bridging the diameter by a (CH2)n moiety.

As long as we’re on the subject what about putting a twist in the ring and making a mobius belt. Mobius molecules are known — http://www.scs.illinois.edu/denmark/wp-content/uploads/gp/2008/Collins-1.pdf — is a very nice review — with a lot of pictures.

The authors think that their work has potential applications — “our synthesis of carbon nanobelt 1 could ultimately lead to the programmable synthesis of single- chirality, uniform-diameter CNTs (30–32) and open a field of nanobelt science and technology”. I think they were just having fun as chemists are wont to do.

Progress has been slow but not for want of trying

Progress in the sense of therapy for Alzheimer’s disease and Glioblastoma multiforme is essentially nonexistent, and we could use better therapy for Parkinsonism. This doesn’t mean that researchers have given up. Far from it. Three papers all in last week’s issue of PNAS came up with new understanding and possibly new therapeutic approaches for all three.

You’ll need some serious molecular biological and cell physiological chops to get through the following.

l. Glioblastoma multiforme — they aren’t living much longer than they were when I started pracice 45 years ago (about 2 years — although of course there are exceptions).

The human ZBTB family of genes consists of 49 members coding for transcription factors. BCL6 is also known as ZBTB27 and is a master regulator of lymph node germinal responses. To execute its transcriptional activity, BCL6 requires homodimerization and formation of a complex with a variety of cofactors including BCL6 corerpressor (BCoR), nuclear receptor corepressor 1 (NCoR) and Silencing Mediator of Retinoic acid and Thyroid hormone receptor (SMRT). BCL6 inhibitors block the interaction between BCL6 and its friends, selectively killing BCL6 addicted cancer cells.

The present paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 114 pp. 3981 – 3986 ’17 ] shows that BCL6 is required for glioblastoma cell viability. One transcriptional target of BCL6 is AXL, a tyrosine kinase. Depletion of AXL also decreases proliferation of glioblastoma cells in vitro and in vivo (in a mouse model of course).

So here are two new lines of attack on a very bad disease.

2. Alzheimer’s disease — the best we can do is slow it down, certainly not improve mental function and not keep mental function from getting worse. ErbB2 is a member of the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR) family. It is tightly associated with neuritic plaques in Alzheimer’s. Ras GTPase activation mediates EGF induced stimulation of gamma secretase to increase the nuclear function of the amyloid precursor protein (APP) intracellular domain (AICD). ErbB2 suppresses the autophagic destruction of AICD, physically dissociating Beclin1 vrom the VPS34/VPS15 complex independently of its kinase activity.

So the following paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 114 pp. E3129 – E3138 ’17 ] Used a compound downregulating ErbB2 function (CL-387,785) in mouse models of Alzheimer’s (which have notoriously NOT led to useful therapy). Levels of AICD declined along with beta amyloid, and the animals appeared smarter (but how smart can a mouse be?).

3.Parkinson’s disease — here we really thought we had a cure back in 1972 when L-DOPA was first released for use in the USA. Some patients looked so good that it was impossible to tell if they had the disease. Unfortunately, the basic problem (death of dopaminergic neurons) continued despite L-DOPA pills supplying what they no longer could.

Nurr1 is a protein which causes the development of dopamine neurons in the embryo. Expression of Nurr1 continues throughout life. Nurr1 appears to be a constitutively active nuclear hormone receptor. Why? Because the place where ligands (such as thyroid hormone, steroid hormones) bind to the protein is closed. A few mutations in the Nurr1 gene have been associated with familial parkinsonism.

Nurr1 functions by forming a heterodimer with the Retinoid X Receptor alpha (RXRalpha), another nuclear hormone receptor, but one which does have an open binding pocket. A compound called BRF110 was shown by the following paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 114 pp. 3795 – 3797, 3999 – 4004 ’17 ] to bind to the ligand pocked of RXRalpha increasing its activity. The net effect is to enhance expression of dopamine neuron specific genes.

More to the point MPP+ is a toxin pretty selective for dopamine neurons (it kills them). BRF110 helps survival against MPP+ (but only if given before toxin administration). This wouldn’t be so bad because something is causing dopamine neurons to die (perhaps its a toxin), so BRF110 may fight the decline in dopamine neuron numbers, rather than treating the symptoms of dopamine deficiency.

So there you have it 3 possible new approaches to therapy for 3 bad disease all in one weeks issue of PNAS. Not easy reading, perhaps, but this is where therapy is going to come from (hopefully soon).

Red blooded women at Wellesley

You’ve probably heard that women’s colleges have been taken over by humorless politically correct snowflakes, angry lesbians, oppressed minorities etc. etc. etc.

The following link will show you that there are plenty of red blooded women at Wellesley. Enjoy

http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2017/04/boston_marathon_2017_scream_tu.html

Don’t worry some very heavy molecular biology with implications for glioblastoma multiforme, Alzheimer’s and Parkinsonism will be posted tonight. In the meantime relax and enjoy the pictures.

Is this any way to write about Hillary Clinton?

Is this any way to write about Hillary Clinton?

“ xxxx has made it increasingly clear that she has no intention of being sidelined. … To the contrary . . . . she managed to elbow herself into a leading outspoken role.” From the New York Times of 9 April 2017.

What a pushy little bitch.

Of course not, they were writing about Nikki Haley.

Here’s how Hillary was treated the same day.

One paragraph should do it

“She noted the abundant social science research that when men are ambitious and sucdessful, they may be perceived as more likeable. In contrast, for women in traditionally male fields, it’s a trade-off; the more successful or ambitious a woman is, the less likable she becomes. .. . . It’s not so much that people consciously oppose powerful women; it’s an unconscious bias.”

Tne NYT should so inform the reporter who wrote the piece on Haley (both appear to be ‘women of color’) whose bias is far from unconscious.

An obvious idea we’ve all missed

In 3+ decades as a clinical neurologist I saw several hundred unfortunate people with primary brain tumors. Not one of them was made of proliferating neurons. Not a single one. Most were tumors derived from glial cells (gliomas, glioblastomas, astrocytomas, oligodendrogliomas) which make up half the cells in the brain. Some came from the coverings of the brain (meningiomas), or the ventricular lining (ependymomas).

A recent paper in Nature (vol. 543 pp.681 – 686 ’17) decided that it might be worthwhile to figure out why some organs rarely if ever develop cancer (brain, heart, skeletal muscle). Obvious isn’t it? But no one did it until now.

Most of these tissues are terminally differentiated (unlike, skin, lung, breast and gut) and don’t undergo cellular division. This means that they don’t have to copy their DNA over and over to replenish old and dying cells, and so they are much less likely to develop mutation.

They also use oxidative phosphorylation (a mitochondrial function) rather than glycolysis to generate energy. So they looked for genes that were upregulated in terminally differentiated muscle (not brain) cells relative to proliferating muscle cell precursors. Not a complicated idea to test once you think of it (but you and I didn’t). They found 5 such, and tested them for their ability to suppress tumor growth. One such (LACTB) decreased the growth rate of a variety of tumor cells in vitro and in vivo (e.g.– when transplanted into immunodeficient animals). Amazingly it seems to have no effect on normal cells.

Showing how little we understand the goings on inside our cells, why don’t you try to guess what LACTB given your (and our) knowledge of cellular biochemistry and physiology.

LACTB changes mitochondrial lipid metabolism, by reducing the rate of decarboxylation of mitochondrial phosphatidyl serine — say what?

Even when you know what LACTB is doing you’d be hard pressed to figure out how this effect slows cancer cell growth (and possibly prevents it from occuring at all).

So given our knowledge we’d have never found LACTB and having found it we still don’t know how it works.

How the brain really works (maybe) – 2

I sent the previous post to a very intelligent friend — a PhD Electrical Engineer who responded as follows

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you are proposing that in addition to direct communication in the nervous system via electrical and chemical synapses, you are proposing that there could also be communication coupling in nerve fibers via local electric fields. But isn’t this a known phenomenon, ephaptic coupling? See
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephaptic_coupling”

I didn’t think EE’s knew about such things (but I told you he’s very smart). Here are a few extra points of mine concerning his response and the article in general.

Excellent point. Thanks. What I propose could certainly be called ephaptic transmission. It has been well described between two axons in peripheral nerves (this was the initial description). Ephaptic transmission is fairly well established in muscle (which also has action potentials spreading along the muscle fiber allowing it to contract). Investigation in the brain has primarily been between adjacent neurons or adjacent axons. Questions have arisen as to whether it could be a mechanism of seizure generation.

As far as I can tell, the following ideas are actually original.
(1) Ephaptic transmission could normally occur between dendrites in the cerebral cortex.
(2) The brain and cerebral cortex is built the way it is to allow dendritic ephaptic transmission to occur.
(3) This is the way serious computations are carried out by the cerebral cortex.

Why now? Probably because there was no way of measuring dendritic electric potential changes directly before this paper (prior to this calcium levels in dendrites were used as a surrogate). Another example of new technology driving the science.

I didn’t put it in the original post, but actual paper notes that the potential flucutations across the dendritic membrane were much larger than the fluctuations recorded at the cell body.

People have wondered for years how various electrical activities in the brain could be synchronized over large areas (every electrical wave seen in the electroencephalogram is the activity of hundreds of thousands to millions of neurons). This may be an explanation — previously people had figured that it was coming from neurons lower in the brain (particularly the thalamus) sending axons all over the place stimulating neurons simultaneously. Even this doesn’t really work, because various areas of the brain are separted from each other, axonal speed is thought to be constant, and the impulses have different distances to travel.

One disturbing aspect to the picture in the previous post — If you regard that neuron as embedded in a cube 50 x 50 x 50 microns on a side, you’d get about 8,000 neurons per cubic millimeter (1,000 x 1,000 x 1,000 cubic microns). The literature says over twice that at 20,000 neurons/cubic millimeter.

I doubt that the above constitutes all the implications of these ideas. Any comments? I am quite interested to hear them.

How the brain really works (maybe)

Stare at the picture just below long and hard. It’s where the brain probably does its calculation — no, not the neuron in the center. No, not the astrocyte just above. Enlarge the picture many times. It’s all those tiny little circles and ellipses you see around the apical dendrite. They all represent nerve and glial processes. A few ellipses have very dark borders — this is myelin (which insulates them allowing them to conduct nerve impulses faster, and which also insulates them from being affected by the goings on of nerve processes next to them). Note that most of the nerve processes do NOT have myelin around them.

Now look at the bar at the lower right in the picture which tells you the magnification. 5 um is 5 microns or 50,000 Angstroms or roughly 10 times the wavelength of visible light (4,000 – 8,000 Angstroms). Look at the picture again and notice just how closely the little circles and ellipses are applied to each other (certainly closer than 1/10 of the bar). This is exactly why there was significant debate between two of the founders of neuroHistology — Camillo Golgi and Ramon Santiago y Cajal.

Unlike every other tissue in the body the brain is so tightly packed that it is impossible to see the cells that make it up with the usual stains used by light microscopists. People saw nuclei all right but they thought the brain was a mass of tissue with nuclei embedded in it (like a slime mold). It wasn’t until the late 1800′s that Camillo Golgi developed a stain which would now and then outline a neuron with all its processes. Another anatomist (Ramon Santiago y Cajal) used Golgi’s technique and argued with Golgi that yes the brain was made of cells. Fascinating that Golgi, the man responsible for showing nerve cells, didn’t buy it. This was a very hot issue at the time, and the two received a joint Nobel prize in 1906 (only 5 years after the prizes began).

The paper discussed below gives a possible reason why the brain is built like this — e.g. it’s how it works !!

Pictures are impressive, but could it be all artifact? To see something with an electron microscope (which this picture is) you really have to process the tissue to a fare-thee-well. One example from way back in the day when I started medical school (1962). Electron microscopy was just coming in, and the first thing we were supposed to see was something called the unit membrane surrounding each cell –two dark lines surrounding a light line, the whole mess being about 60 – 80 Angstroms thick. The dark lines were held to be proteins and the light line was supposed to be lipid. Fresh off 2 years of grad school in chemistry, I tried to figure out just what the chemical treatments used to put tissue in a form suitable for electron microscopy would do to proteins and lipids. It was impossible, but I came away impressed with just how vigorous and traumatic what the microscopists were doing actually was.

To make a long story short — the unit membrane was an artifact of fixation. We now know that the cell membrane has a thickness half that of the unit membrane, with all sorts of proteins going through the lipid.

This is something to keep in mind, for you to avoid being snowed by such pictures. Clinical neurologists and neurosurgeons know quite well that a brain lacking oxygen and glucose swells (a huge clinical problem), and dead brain is exactly that.

Even with all these caveats about electron microscopy of the brain, I think the picture above is pretty close to reality. In favor of tight packing is the following work (along with the staining work of over a century ago). [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 103 pp. 5567 – 5572 ’06 ] injected spheres of different sizes (quantum dots actually) into the rat cerebral cortex, and watched how far they got from the site of injection. Objects ‘as large as’ 350 Angstroms were able to diffuse freely. This was larger than the width seen on electron microscopy (180 Angstroms) but still quite small and too small to be ‘seen’ with visible light.

What’s the point of all this? Simply that the neuropil of the cerebral cortex (all the stuff in the picture which isn’t the cell body of the neuron or the astrocyte) could be where the real computations of the cerebral cortex actually take place. In my opinion, ‘could be’ should be ‘is’ in the previous sentence.

Why? Because of the work described in a previous post — which is repeated in toto below the line of ****

Briefly, the authors of that paper claim to be able to look at the electrical activity of these small processes in the neuropil. How small? A diameter of 5 microns or less. This had never been done before. It was a tremendous technical achievement to do this in a living animal. What they found was that the frequency of spikes in these processes (likely dendrites) during sleep was 7 times greater than the frequency of spikes recorded next to the cell body (soma) which had been done many times before. During wakefulness, the frequency of spikes in the neuropil was 10 fold greater.

I’ve always found it remarkable that most neurons in the cerebral cortex aren’t firing all that rapidly (a few spikes per second — Science vol. 304 pp. 523 – 524, 559 – 563 ’04 ). Neurons (particularly sensory neurons) can fire a lot faster than that — ‘up to’ 500/second.

Perhaps this work explains why — the real calculations are being done in the neuropil by the dendrites.

Even more remarkably, it is possible that the processes of the neuropil are influencing each other without synapses between them because they are so closely packed. The membrane potential shifts the authors measured were much larger than the spikes in the dendrites. So the real computations being performed by the brain might not involve synapses at all ! This would be an explanation of why brain cells and their processes are so squeezed together. So they can talk to each other. No other organ in the body is like this throughout.

This post is already long enough, but the implications are worth exploring further. I’ve written about wiring diagrams of the brain, and how it is at least possible that they wouldn’t tell you how the brain worked — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/would-a-wiring-diagram-of-the-brain-help-you-understand-it/.

There is another possible reason that the wiring diagram wouldn’t be enough to give you an understanding. Here is an imperfect analogy. Suppose you had a complete map of every road and street in the USA, along with the address of every house, building and structure in it. In addition you could also measure the paths of all the vehicles on the roads for one day. Would this tell you how the USA worked? It would tell you nothing about what was going on inside the structures, or how it influenced traffic on the roads.

The paper below is seminal, because for the first time, it allows us to see what brain neurons are doing in all their parts — not just the cell body or the axon (which is all we’ve been able to look at before).

If these speculations are true, the brain is a much more powerful parallel processor than anything we are able to build presently (and possibly in the future). Each pyramidal neuron in the cortex would then be a microprocessor locally influencing all those in its vicinity — and in a cubic millimeter of the cerebral cortex (1,000 x 1,000 x 1,000 microns) there are 20,000 – 100,000 neurons (Science vol. 304 pp. 523 – 524, 559 – 563 ’04).

Fascinating stuff — stay tuned
*****

A staggeringly important paper (if true)

Our conception of how our brain does what it does has just been turned upside down, inside out and from the middle to each end — if the following paper holds up [ Science vol. 355 pp. 1281 eaaj1497 1 –> 10 ’17 ] The authors claim to be able to measure electrical activity in dendrites in a living, behaving animal for days at a time. Dendrites are about the size of the smallest electrodes we have, so impaling them destroys them. The technical details of what they did are crucial, as much of what they report may be artifact due to injury produced by the way they acquired their data.

First a picture of a pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramidal_cell — the cell body is only 20 microns in diameter (the giant pyramidal neurons giving rise to the corticospinal tract are much larger with diameters of 100 microns). Look at the picture in the article. If the cell body is (soma) 20 microns the dendrites arising from it (particularly the apical dendrite) are at most 5 microns thick.

Here’s what they did. A tetrode is a bundle of 4 very fine electrodes. Bundle diameter is only 30 – 40 microns with a 5 micron gap between the tips. This allows an intact dendrite to be caught in the gap. The authors note that chronically implanted tetrodes produce an immune response, in which glial cells proliferate and wall off the tetrode, shielding it from the extracellular medium by forming a high impedance sheath. This allows the tetrode to measure the electrical activity of a dendrite caught between the 4 tips (and hopefully little else).

How physiologic is this activity? Remember that epilepsy developing after head trauma is thought to be due to abnormal electrical activity due to glial scars, and a glial scar is exactly what is found around the tetrode. So a lot more work needs to be done replicating this, and studying similar events in neuronal culture (without glia present).

Well those are the caveats. What did they find? The work involved 9 rats and 22 individually adjustable tetrodes. They found that spikes in the dendrites were quite different than the spikes found by a tetrode next to the pyramidal cell body. The dendritic spikes were larger (570 -2,100 microVolts) vs. 80 microVolts recorded extracellularly for spikes arising at the soma. Of course when the soma is impaled by an electrode you get a much larger spike.

More importantly, the dendritic spike rates were 5 times greater than the somatic spike rates during slow wave sleep and 10 times greater during exploration when awake. The authors call these dendritic action potentials (DAPs). Their amplitude was always positive.

They were also able to measure how the membrane potential of the dendrite fluctuated. The membrane potential fluctuations were always larger than the dendritic spikes themselves (by 7 fold). The size of the flucuations correlated with DAP magnitude and rate.

So all the neuronal spikes and axonal action potentials we’ve been measuring over the years (because it was all we could measure), may be irrelevant to what the brain is really doing. Maybe the real computation is occuring within dendrites.

Now we know we can put an electrode in the brain outside of any neuron and record something called a local field potential — which is held to be a weighted sum of transmembrane currents due to synaptic and dendritic activity and arises within 250 microns of the electrode (and probably closer than that).

So fluctuating potentials are out there in the substance of the brain, outside any neuronal structure. Is it possible that the changes in membrane potential in dendrites are felt by other dendrites and if so is this where the brain’s computations are really taking place? Could synapses be irrelevant to this picture, and each pyramidal neuron not be a transistor but a complex analog CPU? Heady stuff. It certainly means goodbye to the McCullouch Pitts model — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_neuron.

A staggeringly important paper (if true)

Our conception of how our brain does what it does has just been turned upside down, inside out and from the middle to each end — if the following paper holds up [ Science vol. 355 pp. 1281 eaaj1497 1 –> 10 ’17 ] The authors claim to be able to measure electrical activity in dendrites in a living, behaving animal for days at a time. Dendrites are about the size of the smallest electrodes we have, so impaling them destroys them. The technical details of what they did are crucial, as much of what they report may be artifact due to injury produced by the way they acquired their data.

First a picture of a pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramidal_cell — the cell body is only 20 microns in diameter (the giant pyramidal neurons giving rise to the corticospinal tract are much larger with diameters of 100 microns). Look at the picture in the article. If the cell body is (soma) 20 microns the dendrites arising from it (particularly the apical dendrite) are at most 5 microns thick.

Here’s what they did. A tetrode is a bundle of 4 very fine electrodes. Bundle diameter is only 30 – 40 microns with a 5 micron gap between the tips. This allows an intact dendrite to be caught in the gap. The authors note that chronically implanted tetrodes produce an immune response, in which glial cells proliferate and wall off the tetrode, shielding it from the extracellular medium by forming a high impedance sheath. This allows the tetrode to measure the electrical activity of a dendrite caught between the 4 tips (and hopefully little else).

How physiologic is this activity? Remember that epilepsy developing after head trauma is thought to due to abnormal electrical activity due to glial scars, and a glial scar is exactly what is found around the tetrode. So a lot more work needs to be done replicating this, and studying similar events in neuronal culture (without glia present).

Well those are the caveats. What did they find? The work involved 9 rats and 22 individually adjustable tetrodes. They found that spikes in the dendrites were quite different than the spikes found by a tetrode next to the pyramidal cell body. The dendritic spikes were larger (570 -2,100 microVolts) vs. 80 microVolts recorded extracellularly for spikes arising at the soma. Of course when the soma is impaled by an electrode you get a much larger spike.

More importantly, the dendritic spike rates were 5 times greater than the somatic spike rates during slow wave sleep and 10 times greater during exploration when awake. The authors call these dendritic action potentials (DAPs). Their amplitude was always positive.

They were also able to measure how the membrane potential of the dendrite fluctuated. The membrane potential fluctuations were always larger than the dendritic spikes themselves (by 7 fold). The size of the flucuations correlated with DAP magnitude and rate.

So all the neuronal spikes and axonal action potentials we’ve been measuring over the years (because it was all we could measure), may irrelevant to what the brain is really doing. Maybe the real computation is occuring within dendrites.

Now we know we can put an electrode in the brain out side of any neuron and record something called a local field potential — which is held to be a weighted sum of transmembrane currents due to synaptic and dendritic activity and arises within 250 microns of the electrode (and probably closer than that).

So fluctuating potentials are out there in the substance of the brain, outside any neuronal structure. Is it possible that the changes in membrane potential in dendrites are felt by other dendrites and if so is this where the brain’s computations are really taking place? Could synapses be irrelevant to this picture, and each pyramidal neuron not be a transistor but a complex analog CPU? Heady stuff. It certainly means goodbye to the McCullouch Pitts model — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_neuron.