A molecular code that determines the shape, location and function of connections between individual neurons has been uncovered by a team at the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB-KU Leuven). The findings could help researchers better understand brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

The human brain contains billions of neurons that form highly specialized and complex networks regulating thoughts, emotions, memory and muscle movements. Signals are transmitted along these networks from one neuron to another at designated points of contact called synapses.

In order to get this many neurons connected in an organized and meaningful way, it is critical that synapse formation be tightly regulated. Professor Joris de Wit of VIB-KU Leuven wants to know how, when and where these signal-transmitting connections arise.

“How do neurons recognize their appropriate partners? How do they know which type of synapse needs to be where? These are very basic questions, highlighting how much we still need to learn about the brain,"

said de Wit.

Adhesion Molecules

De Wit’s team went looking for answers by studying adhesion molecules.

These molecules can be found on the cell surface, where they physically connect neurons to one another. Neurons express large and diverse sets of adhesion molecules, but it is not clear why they would need so many different adhesion molecules.

Therefore, the team set out to study how a set of three different adhesion molecules, present in the same neurons in the hippocampus (the area of our brain responsible for memory), regulates neuronal connectivity.

“We first analyzed the distribution of these adhesion molecules in great detail, as the hippocampal neurons that we study form lots of different synapses with other brain cells. With the help of our imaging experts, we used a combination of light and electron microscopy to examine the architecture of the different synapses. We also took advantage of electrophysiology in order to investigate changes in synaptic function,"

explained Anna Schroeder, one of the researchers in de Wit’s laboratory.

Synapse Barcode

The scientists found that while one of the adhesion molecules controls the number of connections, the other two affect signal transmission instead — one positively and the other negatively. In combination, the three adhesion molecules precisely define how synapses look and function.

“Think of it as a zip code or barcode for brain cells,” explained Schroeder. “The adhesion molecules are digits with a specific function, but in combination they determine a more complex pattern that shapes the connection between two neurons. In other words, they define the identity of that connection."

In this way, the many different adhesion molecules found in neurons across the brain allow for precise fine-tuning of the different connections they make.

All three adhesion molecules under investigation have been associated with neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia. Understanding their role in brain connectivity is thus of vital importance.

“Now that we understand that these adhesion molecules not only shape the number, but also the architecture and function of synapses, this may lead to a better understanding of how disease-associated mutations in the genes that encode these molecules affect circuit connectivity and function,"

said de Wit.

Anna Schroeder, Jeroen Vanderlinden, Katlijn Vints, Luís F. Ribeiro, Kristel M. Vennekens, Natalia V. Gounko, Keimpe D. Wierda, Joris de Wit A Modular Organization of LRR Protein-Mediated Synaptic Adhesion Defines Synapse Identity Neuron DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2018.06.026

_Image: Dr David Furness, Wellcome Images _

For future updates, subscribe via Newsletter here or Twitter