Single neurons can distinguish inward temporal sequences from outward

“activating synapses in a centrifugal sequence (outward from the soma) caused a different [lesser] [cortical pyramidal] neuronal response than activating the synapses in a centripetal (inward) sequence”

Alain Destexhe. Dendrites Do It in Sequences (24 September 2010)
Science 329 (5999), 1611.


Tiago Branco, Beverley A. Clark, and Michael Häusser. Dendritic Discrimination of Temporal Input Sequences in Cortical Neurons (24 September 2010)
Science 329 (5999), 1671.

Dendritic organization of sensory input to cortical neurons in vivo

Jia, H., Rochefort, N., Chen, X., & Konnerth, A. (2010). Dendritic organization of sensory input to cortical neurons in vivo Nature, 464 (7293), 1307-1312 DOI: 10.1038/nature08947

Consider a a cortical neuron in V1, layer 2/3, whose output shows sharp orientation tuning. What are the orientation tunings of the most important inputs to that neuron? What is the spatial distribution of these inputs in the neuron’s dendritic tree?

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Crowdsourcing the Brain with the Whole Brain Catalog

A very cool article on a new open source, online system to crowd source the assemblage of data in neuroscience from the Voice of San Diego.  From the article:

Traditionally, the study of the brain was organized somewhat like an archipelago. Neuroscientists would inhabit their own island or peninsula of the brain, and see little reason to venture elsewhere.

Molecular neuroscientists, who study how DNA and RNA function in the brain, didn’t share their work with cognitive specialists who study how psychological and cognitive functions are produced by the brain, for example.

But there has been an awakening to the idea that brains of humans and mammals should be studied like the complex, and interrelated systems that they are. Neuroscientists realized that they had to start collaborating across disciplines and sharing their data if they wanted to make advances in their own field.


Ellisman and his UCSD colleagues have devised a solution: crowdsource a brain. And this week they unveiled their years-long project — the Whole Brain Catalog — at the annual convention of the Society for Neuroscience, the largest gathering of brain experts in the world.

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Henry Markram on TED – video online

We had read that Dr. Henry Markram of the Blue Brain project had given a talk at TED (technology, entertainment, design), but the video wasn’t released until this month.  This talk is geared towards a general audience, rather than getting into the specific details of the Blue Brain project, as he has before.  It is engaging and includes many suggestions towards the future of neuroscience and AI.

Watch it online at the TED website.

Visualizing synaptic tagging and capture

A set of two articles recently came out in Science that directly visualize two different (and likely complementary) approaches to synapse specific delivery of gene products. Plasticity at specific synapses (input specificity — we’re restricting the discussion to the dendrites of the post-synaptic neuron) requires proteins (eg. new AMPA receptors) to get to those post-synaptic compartments and membranes. But the intructions for these new proteins are contained in the nucleus with the rest of the genome. Clearly, new proteins synthesized in the soma can’t just be sent everywhere, since only specific inputs (eg. particular dendritic spines) need these new proteins. How does this happen? Hence, the postulated synaptic tag.

Two approaches

Broadly, there are two approaches to synaptic tagging: 1) mRNA is distributed widely and translated locally at tagged locations; 2) protein products are distributed widely in the bodies of dendrites but only contact/off-load at tagged synaptic specializations. This News & Views gives a nice overview of the two papers, which find approach 1) in Aplysia cultures with sensorin mRNA and approach 2) in rat hippocampal neurons with Vesl-1S/Homer-1a protein. It amazes me that both were found pretty much simultaneously, but that might have more to do with the use of the photoconvertible Dendra2 protein than anything else.

With both approaches, we still don’t know why mRNA/protein is directed to a certain location. That is, we can visualize synaptic tagging but we don’t know what is the tag, its ontogeny, or the mechanism of tagging. But that might not be so important to understanding more about neural function. These new tools might allow us to image plasticity at many synapses at once, perhaps even in vivo. But before that, more work is needed… does the optical signal (from the Dendra fusion protein) correlate with degree of potentiation? Can we detect plasticity in the opposite direction, ie. synaptic depression, through another tag?  (As a sidenote to approach 1), the use of 5′ and 3′ UTRs as a sort of molecular zipcode is also intriguing.)

sCRACM: ChR2 circuit mapping

As has become a hallmark of the Svoboda lab, this new paper in Nature (advance online publication) combines several cutting edge technologies (rAAV-delivered ChR2, most prominently, and 2-photon 1-photon laser stimulation) to do some interesting synaptic physiology.

The subcellular organization of neocortical excitatory connections : Article : Nature.

They used ChR2 (with TTX and 4-AP to block action potentials) to find where on the dendritic tree particular inputs synapsed onto L3 and L5 cells and to measure the strength of those inputs. ChR2 depolarizes the input axon locally (60um spot diameter) at points of (potential) axodendritic contact. If you’ve heard the term “potential synapse” before, then think of this technique as a way of checking potential synapses and seeing if there really is an actual synapse there.

The technique allowed them to map on a L3 barrel cortex pyramidal cell where different thalamic inputs (VPm, POm) and cortical inputs (M1, barrel L2/3, barrel L4):


sCRACM stands for subcellular ChR2-assisted circuit mapping.

Split GFP reconstituted: A dynamic synapse label

This new technique from Cori Bargmann’s lab is one of the neatest that I’ve seen in a while. The authors split GFP into two pieces, expressing one piece presynaptically and the other postsynaptically. This creates functional (ie. fluorescing) GFP only at sites of synaptic contact where the protein can reconstitute. They call the technique GFP Reconstitution Across Synaptic Partners (GRASP). Check out an example labeling here:
GRASP labeling figure
The neurons are expressing mCherry in the cytoplasm but GFP is expressed only at the site of synaptic contacts where the split GFP peptides can be reconstituted into a complete GFP fluorophore.