Shaping connections

A protein found in nerve cells might explain why signals sent from some neurons are stronger than others, and how communication across synapses can change.
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In the nervous system, a synapse is a structure that permits a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron. Image credit: National Institute on Aging, NIH (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Nerve cells transmit messages in the form of electrical and chemical signals. Electrical impulses travel along a neuron to the junction between two neighbouring cells, the synapse. There, chemical messengers called neurotransmitters are released from one cell and detected by the next, which can either excite or inhibit the recipient cell. Synapses differ in their ability to propagate signals and their signalling activity also fluctuates at times. Moreover, synaptic connections can be strengthened or weakened in a process called plasticity, which is a key part of learning new skills and recovering from a brain injury. It is thought that synaptic signalling might be amped up or dialled down to change the output of the connection between two cells, but exactly how this happens remains unclear. To investigate why synapses differ and how their signalling capabilities change, Sauvola et al. examined the connections between neurons and muscle cells in developing fruit flies. In fruit fly larvae, two types of neurons – called tonic Ib and phasic Is neurons – form synapses with muscle cells. But their synapses have different signalling properties: Ib synapses are weaker than Is synapses. Sauvola et al. hypothesised that a protein called Tomosyn – which is thought to restrict chemical signalling at the synapse – might be more active at weaker Ib synapses. Sauvola et al. found that Tomosyn was indeed more abundant at Ib synapses than at Is synapses, appearing to reflect their differences in signalling properties. In flies engineered to lack the Tomosyn protein, Ib synapses became four times stronger than usual, while Is synapses hardly changed. This supports the idea that Tomosyn restricts the release of neurotransmitters at typically weak Ib synapses. Further experiments showed Ib synapses in flies lacking Tomosyn also lost their malleability and ability to become strengthened during synaptic plasticity. Though the precise molecular interactions need further investigation, the findings suggest that Tomosyn is required for some forms of synaptic plasticity by controlling how much chemical signal neurons release. In summary, this work advances our understanding of synaptic signalling and brain plasticity, showing once again how the brain can change itself.