Tag: hippocampus

Making Long-term Memories Requires DNA Damage and Brain Inflammation

Source: CC0

Just as you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine have found that you can’t make long-term memories without DNA damage and inflammation in the brain. Their surprising findings were published online today in the journal Nature.

“Inflammation of brain neurons is usually considered to be a bad thing, since it can lead to neurological problems such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” said study leader Jelena Radulovic, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Einstein. “But our findings suggest that inflammation in certain neurons in the brain’s hippocampal region is essential for making long-lasting memories.”

The hippocampus has long been known as the brain’s memory centre. Dr Radulovic and her colleagues found that a stimulus sets off a cycle of DNA damage and repair within certain hippocampal neurons that leads to stable memory assemblies, ie clusters of brain cells representing past experiences.

From shocks to stable memories

The researchers discovered this memory-forming mechanism by giving mice brief, mild shocks sufficient to form an episodic memory of the shock event. Then, they analysed neurons in the hippocampal region and found that genes participating in an important inflammatory signalling pathway had been activated.

“We observed strong activation of genes involved in the Toll-Like Receptor 9 (TLR9) pathway,” said Dr Radulovic, who is also director of the Psychiatry Research Institute at Montefiore Einstein (PRIME). “This inflammatory pathway is best known for triggering immune responses by detecting small fragments of pathogen DNA. So at first we assumed the TLR9 pathway was activated because the mice had an infection. But looking more closely, we found, to our surprise, that TLR9 was activated only in clusters of hippocampal cells that showed DNA damage.”

Brain activity routinely induces small breaks in DNA that are repaired within minutes. But in this population of hippocampal neurons, the DNA damage appeared to be more substantial and sustained.

Triggering inflammation to make memories

Further analysis showed that DNA fragments, along with other molecules resulting from the DNA damage, were released from the nucleus, after which the neurons’ TLR9 inflammatory pathway was activated; this pathway in turn stimulated DNA repair complexes to form at an unusual location: the centrosomes. These organelles are present in the cytoplasm of most animal cells and are essential for coordinating cell division. But in neurons – which don’t divide – the stimulated centrosomes participated in cycles of DNA repair that appeared to organise individual neurons into memory assemblies.

“Cell division and the immune response have been highly conserved in animal life over millions of years, enabling life to continue while providing protection from foreign pathogens,” Dr. Radulovic said. “It seems likely that over the course of evolution, hippocampal neurons have adopted this immune-based memory mechanism by combining the immune response’s DNA-sensing TLR9 pathway with a DNA repair centrosome function to form memories without progressing to cell division.”

Resisting inputs of extraneous information

During the week required to complete the inflammatory process, the mouse memory-encoding neurons were found to have changed in various ways, including becoming more resistant to new or similar environmental stimuli. “This is noteworthy,” said Dr Radulovic, “because we’re constantly flooded by information, and the neurons that encode memories need to preserve the information they’ve already acquired and not be ‘distracted’ by new inputs.”

“This is noteworthy,” said Dr Radulovic, “because we’re constantly flooded by information, and the neurons that encode memories need to preserve the information they’ve already acquired and not be ‘distracted’ by new inputs.”

Importantly, the researchers found that blocking the TLR9 inflammatory pathway in hippocampal neurons not only prevented mice from forming long-term memories but also caused profound genomic instability, ie, a high frequency of DNA damage in these neurons.

“Genomic instability is considered a hallmark of accelerated aging as well as cancer and psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s,” Dr Radulovic said.

“Drugs that inhibit the TLR9 pathway have been proposed for relieving the symptoms of long COVID. But caution needs to be shown because fully inhibiting the TLR9 pathway may pose significant health risks.”

PhD Student Elizabeth Wood and Ana Cicvaric, a postdoc in the Radulovic lab, were the study’s first authors at Einstein.

Source: Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Two-way Signalling Discovered in Certain Neurons

It was long thought that information travelled in a one-way direction, but a new study has revealed that information also travels in the opposite direction at a key synapse in the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for learning and memory. 

Now, Peter Jonas and his group at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria) have demonstrated that information can also travel in the opposite direction at a key synapse in the hippocampus. At the ‘mossy fibre synapse’, the post-synaptic CA3 neuron influences the firing of the post-synaptic ‘mossy fibre neuron’. Their work was published in Nature Communications.

“We have shown, for the first time, that a retrograde information flow is physiologically relevant for pre-synaptic plasticity,” said Yuji Okamoto, a postdoc in the group of Peter Jonas at IST Austria and co-first author of the paper published in Nature Communications.

In the neuronal network, the mossy fibre synapse play a key role in information storage. Synaptic transmission is plastic, meaning that a variable amount of neurotransmitter is released into the synapse. To understand the mechanism of plasticity at work in this synapse, Okamoto precisely stimulated the pre-synaptic terminal of the mossy fibre synapse in rats and at the same time recorded electrical properties at the post-synaptic neuron. “We need to know the synapse’s exact properties—with the numerical values, eg, for its conductance—to create an exact model of this synapse. With his exact measurements, Yuji managed to obtain these numbers,” added Peter Jonas, co-corresponding author with postdoc David Vandael.

Smart teacher balances student’s workload

The researchers found that, unexpectedly, the post-synaptic neuron has an influence on plasticity in the pre-synaptic neuron. Previously the assumption was that the mossy fibre was a ‘teacher synapse’, inducing firing in the post-synaptic neuron. “Instead, we find that this synapse acts like a ‘smart teacher’, who adapts the lessons when students are overloaded with information. Similarly, the pre-synaptic mossy fibre detects when the post-synaptic neuron can’t take more information: When activity increases in the post-synaptic neuron, the pre-synaptic neuron reduces the extent of plasticity,” explained Jonas.

This finding raises the question of how the post-synaptic neuron sends information about its activity status to the pre-synaptic neuron. Pharmacological evidence suggests a role for glutamate, one of the key neurotransmitters used by neurons to send signals to other cells. Glutamate is also the transmitter released from pre-synaptic mossy fibre terminals. When calcium levels increase in the post-synaptic neuron—a sign that the neuron is active—the post-synaptic neuron may release vesicles with glutamate into the synapse. The glutamate travels back to the pre-synaptic neuron, against the usual flow of neuronal information.

“This retrograde modulation of plasticity likely helps to improve information storage in the downstream hippocampal network,” said Jonas, adding: “Once again, exact measurements have shown that reality is more complex than a simplified model would suggest.”

Source: Institute of Science and Technology Austria

Journal information: David Vandael et al. Transsynaptic modulation of presynaptic short-term plasticity in hippocampal mossy fiber synapses, Nature Communications (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-23153-5