Maybe chemistry just isn’t that important in wiring the brain

Even the strongest chemical ego may not survive a current paper which states that the details of ligand receptor binding just aren’t that important in wiring the fetal brain.

The paper starts noting that there isn’t enough information in our 3.2 gigaBase genome to specify each and every synapse. Each cubic milliMeter of cerebral cortex is stated to contain a billion of them [ Cell vol. 163 pp. 277 – 280 ’15 ].

If you have enough receptors and ligands and use them combinatorially, you actually can specify quite a few synapses. We have 70 different protocadherin gene products found on the neuronal surface. They can bind to each other and themselves. The fruitfly has the dscam genes which guide axons to their proper position. Because of alternative splicing some 38,016 dscam isoforms are possible.

It’s not too hard to think of these different proteins on the neuronal surface as barcodes, specifying which neuron will bind to which.

Not so, says [ Cell vol. 163 pp. 285 – 291 ’15 ]. What is important is that there are lot of them, and that a neuron expressing one of them is unlikely to bump into another neuron carrying the same one. Neurons ‘like’ to form synapses, and will even form synapses with themselves (one process synapsing on another) if nothing else is around. These self synapses are called autapses. How likely is this? Well under each square millimeter of cortex in man there are some 100,000 neurons, and each neuron has multiple dendrites and axons. Self synapse formation is a real problem.

The paper says that the structure of all these protocadherins, dscams and similar surface molecules is irrelevant to what program they are carrying out — not synapsing on yourself. If a process bumps into another in the packed cortex with the same surface molecule, the ‘homophilic’ binding prevents self-synapse formation. So the chemical diversity is just the instantiation of the ‘don’t synapse with yourself’ rule — what’s important is that there is a lot of diversity. Just what this diversity is chemically is less important than there is a lot of it.

This is another example of “It’s not the bricks, it’s the plan” in another guise —

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