Synapses – the junctions where neurons communicate – are constantly growing and pruning themselves – and those two processes occur independently of one another, says a new study.
As a synapse sees more and more use, it tends to grow stronger, while synapses that fall out of use tend to grow weaker and eventually die off. Collectively, these processes are known as synaptic plasticity: the ability of synapses to change their connective properties. But as it turns out, the elimination of redundant synapses isn’t directly dependent on others being strengthened – instead, it seems to be triggered by its own independent chemical messaging system.
Like many mammals, we humans are born with brains that aren’t yet particularly well-adapted for anything other than – well, adaptation. Through our brains’ extraordinary plasticity, we’re able to learn, in a few short years, everything from how to walk upright to how to argue – and as we grow older, our brains learn how to learn more quickly and think more efficiently by pruning away unneeded synapses.
But all that speed and flexibility come at a price: the balance between synaptic growth and die-back must be delicately maintained. Excessive connectivity can lead to diseases like epilepsy, while insufficient communication can result in disorders like autism.
This kind of summarizing oversimplifies the situation, of course – brain disorders rarely have just a single cause, or a clearly-defined set of symptoms. Even so, they provide grim reminders of the precise electrochemical balancing act that continues in the dark backstage of our skulls throughout each moment of every day.
And now, as the Journal of Neuroscience reports, a team led by The Jackson Laboratory’s Zhong-wei Zhang has found that synaptic growth and pruning aren’t two parts of a single process after all – they’re two processes, coordinated through two different chemical signaling systems.
The team discovered this by studying a certain type of glutamatergic synapses - i.e., synapses that use the common neurotransmitter chemical glutamate – in mouse neurons. The specific type of synaptic receptor the team studied is called the AMPAR, which is short for (get ready for this) “α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid receptor.”
The team discovered that when AMPARs of baby mice were deprived of glutamate stimulation, these receptors’ symapses didn’t grow stronger, as they did in normal mice:
Deletion of GluA3 or GluA4 caused significant reductions of synaptic AMPAR currents in thalamic neurons at P16–P17, with a greater reduction observed in GluA3-deficient mice.
No huge shock there. But what was surprising for the team was their other discovery – that even in these glutamate-deficient mice, pruning of AMPARs still proceeded normally:
Deletions of GluA3 or GluA4 or both had no effect on the elimination of relay inputs: the majority of thalamic neurons in these knock-out mice—as in wild-type mice—receive a single relay input.
Looking at this data, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that pruning of AMPARs is dependent on a separate mechanism from their strengthening. Just what that other mechanism is remains to be seen.
In short, this is another example of how even the most mundane workings of our brains continue to stun neuroscientists with brand-new revelations every day.