Tag Archives: G protein coupled receptors

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 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. “Individual neurons of the pars compact 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 the post-synaptic neuron and its postsynaptic density is nowhere to be found.  This is called volume neurotransmission.

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.

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

But dopamine doesn’t work at the synapse, and the 5 receptors for it (called G Protein Coupled Receptors — GPCRs) aren’t 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.

Neither does norepinephrine all of whose receptors are GPCRs.  Serotonin does have one of its 16 or so receptors which conducts ions, but the rest are 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.

We do know that the norepinephrine and serotonin axons work by volume neurotransmission (not sure about those of the basal nucleus of Meynert).

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?  Maybe, 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).

The work was done in living animals, so no microscopy is available showing the synapse. 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.

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.



The uses and abuses of molarity — II

Just as the last post showed why a 1 Molar solution of a protein makes no sense at all, it is reasonable to ask what the highest concentration of a single protein in the cellular environment could be. Strangely, it was very hard for me to find an estimate of the percentage of protein mass inside a eukaryotic cell. There is one for the red blood cell, which is essentially a bag of hemoglobin. The amount is 33 grams/deciliter or 330 grams/liter. Hemoglobin (which is a tetramer) has a molecular mass of 64,000 Daltons.  So that’s 330/64000 = .5 x 10^-3 Molar.   So all proteins in our cells have a maximum concentration at most in the milliMolar range.

Before moving on, how do you think the red blood cell gets its energy?  Amazingly it is by anaerobic glycolysis, not using the oxygen carried by hemoglobin at all.  Why? If it used oxidative phosphorylation which runs on oxygen, it would burn up.  That’s why red cells do not contain mitochondria. 

On to Kd the dissociation constant.  At least 475 FDA approved drugs target G Protein Coupled Receptors (GPCRs), and our genome codes for some 826 of them.  Almost 500 of them code for smell receptors, and of the 300 or so not involved with smell 1/3 are orphans (as of 2019) with no known ligand.  There are GPCRs for all neurotransmitters which is why neurologists and psychiatrists are very interested in them. 

The Kd is defined as [ free ligand ][ free receptor ]/ [ ligand bound to receptor]  where all the  [  ]’s are concentrations in Moles/liter (e.g. Molar concentrations). 

There’s the rub.  Kd makes sense when ligand and receptor are swimming around in solution, but GPCRs never do this.  The working GPCR is embedded in our cell membrane which topologists tell us are 2 dimensional manifolds embedded in 3 dimensional space.  What does concentration mean in a situation like this?  Think of the entropy involved in getting all the GPCRs to lie in a single plane.  Obviously not so simple.  

People get around this by using radioactive ligands, and embedding GPCRs in membranes and measuring the time for ligands to bind and unbind (e.g. kinetics), but this is miles away from the physiologic situations — for details please see

2019 Apr 5; 485: 9–19.
The same is true for other proteins of interest — ion channels for the neurologist, hormone receptors for the endocrinologist, angiotension converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) for the pandemic virus.  
I think that all Kd’s of membrane embedded receptors do is give you an ordinal ordering (e.g. receptor A binds ligand B tighter than ligand C ) but not a quantitative one.
Next up, how a Nobel prizewinner totally misunderstood the nature and applicability of molarity and studies on a two dimensional gas (complete with Pressure * Area = n * Gas Constant * Temperature).


The neuropharmacological brilliance of the meningococcus

The meningococcus can kill you within 12 hours after the spots appear — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waterhouse–Friderichsen_syndrome.  Who would have thought that it would be teaching us neuropharmacology.   But it is —  showing us how to make a new class of drugs, that no one has ever thought of.

One of the most important ways that the outside of a cell tells the inside what’s going on and what to do is the GPCR (acronym for G Protein Coupled Receptor).  Our 20,000 protein coding genome contains 826 of them. 108 G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) are the targets of 475 Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drugs (slightly over 1/3).   GPCRs are embedded in the outer membrane of the cell, with the protein going back and forth through the membrane 7 times (transmembrane segment 1 to 7 (TM1 – TM7). As the GPCR sits there usually the 7 TMs cluster together, and signaling molecules such as norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin etc. etc. bind to the center of the cluster.   This is where the 475 drugs try to modify things.

Not so the meningococcus. It binds to the beta2 adrenergic receptor on the surface of brain endothelial cells lining cerebral blood vessels, turning on a signaling cascade which eventually promotes opening junctions of the brain endothelial cells with each other, so the bug can get into the brain.  All sorts of drugs are used to affect beta2 adrenergic receptors, in particular drugs for asthma which activate the receptor causing lung smooth muscle to relax.  All of them are small molecules which bind within the 7 TM cluster.

According to Nature Commun. vol 10 pp. 4752 –> ’19, the little hairs (pili) on the outside of the organism bind to sugars attached to the extracellular surface of the receptor, pulling on it activating the receptor.

This a completely new mechanism to alter GPCR function (which, after all,  is what our drugs are trying to do).  This means that we potentially have a whole new class of drugs, and 826 juicy targets to explore them with.

Here is one clinical experience I had with the meningococcus.  A middle aged man presented with headache, stiff neck and fever.  Normally spinal fluid is as clear as water.  This man’s was cloudy, a very bad sign as it usually means pus (lots of white blood cells).  I started the standard antibiotic (at the time)  for bacterial meningitis — because you don’t wait for the culture to come back which back then took two days.  The lab report showed no white cells, which I thought was screwy, so I went down to the lab to look for myself — there weren’t any.  The cloudiness was due to a huge number of meningococcal bacteria.  I though he was a goner, but amazingly he survived and went home. Unfortunately his immune system was quite abnormal, and the meningitis was the initial presentation of multiple myeloma.

Not physical organic chemistry but organic physical chemistry

This post is about physical chemistry with organic characteristics in the sense that capitalism in China is called socialism with Chinese characteristics. A lot of cell biology is also involved.

I remember the first time I heard about Irving Langmuir and the two dimensional gas he created. It even followed a modified perfect gas law (PA = nRT where A is area). He did this by making a monolayer of long chain fatty acids on water, with the carboxyl groups binding to the water, and the hydrocarbon side chain sticking up into the air. I thought this was incredibly neat. It was the first example of organic physical chemistry. He published his work in 1917 and won the Nobel in Chemistry for it in 1932.

Fast forward to our understanding of the membrane encasing our cells (the technical term is plasma membrane to distinguish from the myriad other membranes inside our cells. To a first approximation it’s just two Langmuir films back to back with the hydrocarbon chains of the lipids dissolving in each other, and the hydrophilic parts of the membrane lipids binding to the water on either side. This is why it’s called a lipid bilayer.

Most of the signals going into our cells must pass through the plasma membrane, using proteins spanning it. As a neurologist I spent a lot of time throwing drugs at them — examples include every known receptor for neurotransmitters, reuptake proteins for them (think the dopamine transporter), ion channels. The list goes on and on and includes the over 800 G protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) with their 7 transmembrane segments we have in our genome [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 111 pp. 1825 – 1830 ’14 ].

Glypiated proteins (you heard right) also known as PIGtailed proteins (you heard that right too) don’t follow this pattern. They are proteins anchored in the outer leaflet of the plasma membrane lipid bilayer by covalently linked phosphatidyl inositol. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phosphatidylinositol — the picture shows you why — inositol is a sugar, hence crawling with hydroxyl groups, while the phosphatidic acid part has two long hydrocarbon chains which can embed in the outer leaflet. We have 150 of them as of 2009 (probably more now). Examples of PIGtailed proteins include alkaline phosphatase, Thy-1 antigen, acetyl cholinesterase, lipoprotein lipase, and decay accelerating factor. So most of them are enzymes working on stuff outside the cell, so they don’t need to signal.

Enter the lipid raft. [ Cell vol. 161 pp. 433 – 434, 581 – 594 ’15 ] It’s been 18 years since rafts were first proposed, and their existence is still controversial (with zillions of papers saying they exist and more zillions saying they don’t). What are they — definitions vary (particularly about how large they are). Here’s what Molecular Biology of the Cell 4th edition p. 589 had to say about them — Rafts are small (700 Angstroms in diameter). Rafts are rich in sphingolipids, glycolipids and cholesterol. The hydrocarbon chains are longer and straighter than those of most membrane lipids, rafts are thicker than other parts of bilayer. This allows them to better accomodate ‘certain’ membrane proteins, which accumulate there. [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 100 p. 8055 – 7’03 ] These include glycosylphosphatidylinositol anchored proteins (glypiated proteins), cholesterol linked and palmitoylated proteins such as Hedgehog, Src family kinases and the alpha subunits of G proteins, cytokine receptors and integrins.

Biochemical analysis shows that rafts consist of cholesterol and sphingolipids in the exoplasmic leaflet (outer layer of the plasma membrane) of the lipid bilayer and cholesterol and phospholipids with saturated fatty acids in the endoplasmic leaflet (layer facing the cytoplasm). The raft is less fluid than surrounding areas of the membrane. So if they in fact exist, rafts contain a lot of important cellular players.

The Cell paper introduced synthetic fluorescent glypiated proteins into the outer plasma membrane leaflet of Chinese hamster ovary cells and was able to demonstrate nanoClustering on scales under 1,000 Angstroms (way too small to see with visible light, accounting for a lot of the controversy concerning their existence).

How can the authors make such a statement? The evidence was a decrease in fluorescence anisotropy due to Forster resonance energy transfer effects. Forster energy transfer is interesting in that it doesn’t involve molecule #1 losing energy by emitting a photon which is absorbed by molecule #2 increasing its energy. It works by molecule #1 inducing a dipole in molecule #2 (by a Van der Waals effect). Obviously, to do this, the molecules must be fairly close, and transfer efficiency falls off as the inverse 6th power of the distance between the two molecules.

In Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer (FRET), one fluorophore (the donor) transfers its excited state energy to a different fluorophore (the acceptor) which emits fluorescence of a different color. For more details see — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Förster_resonance_energy_transfer — its interesting stuff. Again an example of physical chemistry with organic characteristics (and pretty good evidence for the existence of lipid rafts to boot).

Now it gets even more interesting. Nanoclustering is dependent on the length of the acyl chain forming the GPI anchor (at least 18 carbons must be present). NanoClustering diminishes on cholesterol depletion in actin depleted cell blebs and mutant cell lines deficient in the inner leaflet lipid — phosphatidylserine (PS) — which has two long chain fatty acids hanging off the glycerol. So it looks as if the saturated acyl chains of the glypiated proteins of the outer leaflet interdigitate with those of PS in inner leaflet. The effect is also enhanced on expression of proteins specifically linking PS to the actin cytoskeleton of the cortex. Binding of PS to the cortical actin cytoskeleton determines where and when the clusters will be stabilized. The coupling can work both ways — if something immobilizes and stabilizes the glypiated proteins extracellularly, than PS lipids can form correlated patches.

This might be a mechanism for information transfer across the plasma membrane (and acrossother membranes to boot). This could also serve as a way to couple many outer leaflet membrane lipids such as gangliosides and other sphingolipids with events internal to the cell. Cholesterol can stabilize the local liquid ordered domain over a length scale that is large than the size of the immobilized cluster. A variety of membrane associated proteins inside the cell (spectrin, talin, caldesmon) are able to bind actin. “The formation of the contractile actin clusters then determine when and where the domains may be stabilized, bringing the generation of membrane domains in live cells under control of the actomyosin signaling network.’

So just like the integrins which can signal from outside the cell to inside and from inside the cell to outside, glypiated proteins and the actin cytoskeleton may form a two way network for signaling. No one should have to tell you how important the actomyosin cytoskeleton is in just about everything the cell does. Truly fascinating stuff. Stay tuned.