Tag Archives: action potential

The staggering implications of one axon synapsing on another

It isn’t often that a single paper can change the way we think the brain works.  But such is the case for the paper described in the previous post (full copy below *** ) if the implications I draw from it are correct.

Unfortunately this post requires a deep dive into neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neuropharmacology and cellular molecular biology.  I hope to put in enough background to make some of it comprehensible, but it is really written for the cognoscenti in these fields.

I’m pretty sure that some of these thoughts are both original and unique

Briefly, the paper provided excellent evidence for one axon causing another to fire an impulse (an action potential).   The fireror was from a neuron using acetyl choline as a neurotransmitter, and the fireree was a dopamine axon going to the striatum.

Dopamine axons are special.  They go all over the brain. The cell body of the parent neuron of the axon to be synapsed on uses dopamine as a neurotransmitter.  It sits in the pars compacta of the substantia nigra a fair piece away from the target they studied (the striatum). “Individual neurons of the pars compacta are calculated to give rise to 4.5 meters of axons once all the branches are summed”  — [ Neuron vol. 96 p. 651 ’17 ].”  These axons release dopamine all over the brain.  There aren’t many dopamine neurons to begin with just 80,000 which is 1 millionth of the current (probably unreliable) estimate of the number of neurons in the brain 80,000,000,000.

Now synapses between neurons are easy to spot using electron microscopy.  The presynaptic terminal contains a bunch of small vesicles and is closely apposed (300 Angstroms — way below anything the our eyes can see) to the post synaptic neuron which also looks different, usually having a density just under the membrane (called, logically enough, post-synaptic density).  Embedded in the postsynaptic membrane are proteins which conduct ions such as Na+, K+, Cl- into the postsynaptic neuron triggering an action potential.

But the dopamine axons going all over the brain have a lot of presynaptic specialization, but in many of the cases the post-synaptic neuron and its postsynaptic density is nowhere to be found (or the receptors for dopamine aren’t near the presynaptic specialization).  This is called volume neurotransmission.

However, in the nuclei studied (the striatum) dopamine synapses on dendrites of the major cell type (the medium spiny neuron) are well described and the 5 receptors for dopamine (called G Protein Coupled Receptors — GPCRs) are found there.  None of the GPCRs conduct ions or trigger action potentials (immediately anyway).  Instead, they produce their effects much more slowly and change the metabolism of the interior of the cell.  This is true for all GPCRs, regardless of the ligand activating them — and humans have 826 GPCR genes.

Note also that volume neurotransmission means that dopamine reaches nonNeuronal tissue — and there is good evidence that dopamine receptors are present on glial cells, pericytes and blood vessels.

The story doesn’t end with dopamine.  There are 3 other similar systems of small numbers of neurons collected into nuclei, using different neurotransmitters, but whose axons branch and branch so they go all over the brain.

These are the locus coeruleus which uses norepinephrine as a neurotransmitter, the dorsal raphe nucleus which uses serotonin and the basal nucleus of Meynert which uses acetyl choline.  There is excellent evidence that the first two (norepinephrine and serotonin) use volume neurotransmission. I’m not sure about those of the basal nucleus of Meynert.

What is so remarkable about the paper, that it allows the receiving neurons to (partially) control what dopamine input it gets.

All norepinephrine receptors are GPCRs, while only one of the 16 or so serotonin receptors conducts ions, the rest being GPCRs.

Acetyl choline does have one class of receptors (nicotinic) which conducts ions, and which the paper shows is what is triggering the axon on axon synapse.  The other class (muscarinic) of acetyl choline receptor is a GPCR.

Addendum 29 September — it goes without saying (although I didn’t say it) that any molecule released by volume neurotransmission doesn’t confine itself to finding targets on neurons.  Especially with norepinephrine, it could bind to receptors for it on the vasculature causing circulatory effects.  They could also bind to GPCRs on pericytes and glia.

Now the paper tested axon to axon firing in one of the four systems (dopamine) in one of the places its axons goes (the striatum).  There is no question that the axons of all 4 systems ramify widely.

Suppose axon to axon firing is general, so a given region can control in someway how much dopamine/serotonin/norepinephrine/acetyl choline it is getting.

Does this remind you of any system you are familiar with?  Perhaps because my wife went to architecture school, it reminds me of an old apartment building, with separate systems to distribute electricity, plumbing, steam heat and water to each apartment, which controls how much of each it gets.

Perhaps these four systems are basically neurological utilities, necessary for  the function of the brain, but possibly irrelevant to the computations it is carrying out, like a mother heating a bottle for her baby in water on a gas stove on a cold winter night.  The nature of steam heat, electricity, water and gas tell you very little about what is going on in her apartment.

The paper is so new (the Neuron issue of 21 September) that more implications are sure to present themselves.

Quibbles are sure to arise.  One is that fact that the gray matter of our brain doesn’t contain much in the way of neurons using acetyl choline as a neurotransmitter.  What it does have is lots of neurons using GABA which we know can act on axons, inhibiting axon potential generation.  This has been well worked out with synapses where the axon emerges from the neuron cell body (the initial segment).  However the different ionic composition of axons in the developing brain results in GABA having an excitatory effect.  Perhaps ionic composition varies in different parts of the neuron.

The work was done in living animals, so the paper contains no electron micrographs.  Such work is sure to be done.  No classical presynaptic apparatus may be present, just two naked axons touching each other and interacting by ephaptic transmission (the term does not appear in the paper).

So a lot of work should be done, the first of which should be replication. As the late Carl Sagan said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.


As Mark Twain said ” There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”


A totally unsuspected information processing mechanism in the brain

This is pretty hard core stuff for the neurophysiology, neuropharmacology and  neuroscience cognoscenti.  You can skip it if you’re satisfied with our understanding of how the brain works, and our current treatments for neurological and psychiatric disease.  You aren’t?  Join the club and read on.

We thought we pretty much understood axons.  They were wires conducting nerve impulses (action potentials) from the cell body to their far away ends, where the nerve impulses released neurotransmitters which then affected other neurons they were connected to by synapses.

We knew that there were two places on the axon where receptors for neurotransmitters were found, allowing other neurons to control what the axon did.  The first was the place where axon leaves the cell body, called the axon initial segment (AIS).  Some of them are controlled by the ends of chandelier cells — interneurons with elaborate specialized synapses called cartridges.   The second was on the axon terminals at the synapse — the presynapse.  Receptors for the transmitter to be released were found (autoreceptors) and for other neurotransmitters (such as the endocannabinoids (( our indigenous marihuana)) released by the presynaptic cell.

Enter a blockbuster paper from Science (volume 375 pp. 1378 – 1385 ’22) science.abn0532-2.pdf.  It shows (in one particular case) that the axons themselves have receptors for a particular transmitter (acetyl choline) which partly can control their behavior.  I sure people will start looking for this elsewhere. The case studied is of particular interest to the neurologist, because the axons are from dopamine releasing neurons in the striatum.  Death of these neurons causes parkinsonism.

The work used all sort of high technology including G Protein Coupled Receptors (GPCRs) highly modified so that when dopamine hit them a fluorescent compound attached to them lit up, permitting the local concentration of dopamine to be measured in the living brain.  Another such GPCR was used to measure local acetyl choline concentration.

The dopamine axons contain a nicotinic type receptor for acetyl choline.  Stimulation of the interneurons releasing acetyl choline caused a much larger release of dopamine (in an area estimated to contain 3 to 15 million dopamine axon terminals.  The area covered by dopamine release was 3 times larger than the area covered by acetyl choline release, implying that the acetyl choline was causing the axons to fire.

The cell body of the dopamine neuron had nothing to do with it, as the phenomenon was seen in brain slices of the striatum (which have no input from the dopamine cell bodies.

They could actually study all this in living animals, and unsurprisingly, there were effects on movement with increased striatal dopamine and acetyl choline being associated with movement of the animal to the opposite side.

So this is an entirely novel mechanism for the control of neural activity.  How widespread such a mechanism is awaits further study, as is whether it is affected in various diseases, and whether manipulation of it will do any good (or harm).

Exciting times.



Just when you thought you understood neurotransmission

Back in the day, the discovery of neurotransmission allowed us to think we understood how the brain worked. I remember explaining to medical students in the early 70s, that the one way flow of information from the presynaptic neuron to the post-synaptic one was just like the flow of current in a vacuum tube — yes a vacuum tube, assuming anyone reading knows what one is. Later I changed this to transistor when integrated circuits became available.

Also the Dale hypothesis as it was taught to me, was that a given neuron released the same neurotransmitter at all its endings. As it was taught back in the 60s this meant that just one transmitter was released by a given neuron.

Retrograde transmission was just a glimmer in the mind’s eye back then. We now know that the post-synaptic neuron releases compounds which affect the presynaptic neuron, the supposed controller of the postsynaptic neuron. Among them are carbon monoxide, and the endocannabinoids (e. g. what marihuana is trying to mimic).

In addition there are neurotransmitter receptors on the presynaptic neuron, which respond to what it and other neurons are releasing to control its activity. These are outside the synapse itself. These events occur more slowly than the millisecond responses in the synapse to the main excitatory neurotransmitter of the brain (glutamic acid) and the main inhibitory neurotransmitter (gamma amino butyric acid — aka GABA). Receptors on the presynaptic neuron for the transmitter it’s releasing are called autoreceptors, but the presynaptic terminal also contains receptors for other neurotransmitters.

Well at least, neurotransmitters aren’t released by the presynaptic neuron without an action potential which depolarizes the presynaptic terminal, or so we thought until [ Neuron vol. 82 pp. 63 – 70 ’14 ]. The report involves a structure near and dear to the neurologist the striatum (caudate and putamen — which is striated because the myelinated axons of the internal capsule go through its anterior end giving it a striated appearance).

It is the death of the dopamine containing neurons in the substantial nigra which cause Parkinsonism. They project some of their axons to the striatum. The striatum gets input elsewhere (from the cortex using glutamic acid) and from neurons intrinsic to itself (some of which use acetyl choline as their neurotransmitter — these are called cholinergic interneurons).

The paper makes the claim that the dopamine neurons projecting to the striatum also contain the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA.

The paper also says that the cholinergic interneurons cause release of GABA by the dopamine neurons — they bind to a type of acetyl choline receptor called nicotinic (similar but not identical to the nicotinic receptors which allow our muscles to contract) in the presynaptic terminals of the dopamine neurons of the substantial nigra residing in the striatum. Isn’t medicine and neuroanatomy a festival of terms? It’s why you need a good memory to survive medical school.

These used optogenetics (something I don’t have time to explain — but see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optogenetics ) to selectively stimulate the 1 – 2% of striatal neurons which use acetyl choline as a neurotransmitter. What they found was that only GABA (and not dopamine) was released by the dopamine neurons in response to stimulating this small subset of neurons. Even more amazing, the GABA release occurred without an action potential depolarizing the presynaptic terminal.

This literally stands everything I thought I knew about neurotransmission on its ear. How widespread this phenomenon actually is, isn’t known at this point. Clearly, the work needs to be replicated — extreme claims require extreme evidence.

Unfortunately I’ve never provided much background on neurotransmission for the hapless chemists and medicinal chemists reading this (if there are any), but medicinal chemists must at least have a smattering of knowledge about this, since neurotransmission is involved in how large classes of CNS active drugs work — antidepressants, antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, migraine therapy. There is some background on this here — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/08/29/some-basic-pharmacology-for-the-college-student/