Given the rapid rate of population aging and the increased incidence of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases with advanced age, it is important to ascertain the determinants that result in cognitive impairment. It is also important to note that some many of the aged population exhibit ‘successful’ cognitive aging, in which cognitive impairment is minimal. One main goal of normal aging studies is to distinguish the neural changes that occur in unsuccessful (functionally impaired) subjects from those of successful (functionally unimpaired) subjects. In this review, we present some of the structural adaptations that neurons and spines undergo throughout normal aging and discuss their likely contributions to electrophysiological properties and cognition. Structural changes of neurons and dendritic spines during aging, and the functional consequences of such changes, remain poorly understood. Elucidating the structural and functional synaptic age-related changes that lead to cognitive impairment may lead to the development of drug treatments that can restore or protect neural circuits and mediate cognition and successful aging.
Whole-cell patch-clamp recordings and high resolution morphometry were used to assess functional and structural properties of layer 3 pyramidal neurons in early (< 4 months) and advanced (> 8 months) stages of tauopathy in frontal cortical slices prepared from rTg4510 tau mutant (P301L) mice. In early tauopathy, dendritic architecture is preserved. In advanced tauopathy, neurons can be categorized as either “atrophic” (58%)- exhibiting marked atrophy of the apical tuft, or “intact” (42%)- with normal apical tufts and, in some instances, proliferative sprouting of oblique branches of the apical trunk. Approximately equal numbers of atrophic and intact neurons contain neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) or are tangle-free, lending further support to the idea that NFTs per se are not toxic. Spine density is decreased due to a specific reduction in mushroom spines, but filopodia are increased in both atrophic and intact neurons. By contrast to these morphological changes, which are robust only in the advanced stage, significant electrophysiological changes are present in the early stage and persist in the advanced stage in both atrophic and intact neurons. The most marked of these changes are: a depolarized resting membrane potential, an increased depolarizing sag potential and increased action potential firing rates- all indicative of hyperexcitability. Spontaneous excitatory postsynaptic currents are not reduced in frequency or amplitude in either stage. The difference in the time course of functionally important electrophysiological changes versus regressive morphological changes implies differences in pathogenic mechanisms underlying functional and structural changes to neurons during progressive tauopathy.
in vitro slice; whole-cell patch-clamp; dendrite; dendritic spine; excitability
Reduced excitability, due to an increase in the slow afterhyperpolarization (and its underlying current sIAHP), occurs in CA1 pyramidal cells in aged cognitively-impaired, but not cognitively-unimpaired, rodents. We sought to determine whether similar age-related changes in the sIAHP occur in pyramidal cells in the rhesus monkey dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC). Whole-cell patch-clamp recordings were obtained from layer 3 (L3) and layer 5 (L5) pyramidal cells in dlPFC slices prepared from young (9.6 ± 0.7 years old) and aged (22.3 ± 0.7 years old) behaviorally characterized subjects. The amplitude of the sIAHP was significantly greater in L3 (but not L5) cells from aged-impaired compared to both aged-unimpaired and young monkeys, which did not differ. Aged L3, but not L5, cells exhibited significantly increased action potential firing rates, but there was no relationship between sIAHP and firing rate. Thus, in monkey dlPFC L3 cells, an increase in sIAHP is associated with age-related cognitive decline; however, this increase is not associated with a reduction in excitability.
Slice; Patch-clamp; Voltage-clamp; Potassium channels; Excitability
The synaptic connections that form between neurons during development remain plastic and able to adapt throughout the lifespan, enabling learning and memory. However, during aging and in particular in neurodegenerative diseases, synapses become dysfunctional and degenerate, contributing to dementia. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), synapse loss is the strongest pathological correlate of cognitive decline, indicating that synaptic degeneration plays a central role in dementia. Over the past decade, strong evidence has emerged that oligomeric forms of amyloid beta, the protein that accumulates in senile plaques in the AD brain, contribute to degeneration of synaptic structure and function. More recent data indicate that pathological forms of tau protein, which accumulate in neurofibrillary tangles in the AD brain, also cause synaptic dysfunction and loss. In this review, we will present the case that soluble forms of both amyloid beta and tau protein act at the synapse to cause neural network dysfunction, and further that these two pathological proteins may act in concert to cause synaptic pathology. These data may have wide-ranging implications for the targeting of soluble pathological proteins in neurodegenerative diseases to prevent or reverse cognitive decline.
Alzheimer; synapse; amyloid beta; tau
Amyloid-beta (Aβ) plays a key role in the etiology of Alzheimer’s disease. Pyramidal cell dendrites exposed to Aβ exhibit dramatic structural alterations, including reduced dendritic spine densities. To determine whether such structural alterations lead to electrophysiological changes, whole-cell patch clamp recordings with biocytin filling were used to assess both the electrophysiological and morphological properties of layer 3 pyramidal cells in frontal cortical slices prepared from 12-month-old Tg2576 amyloid precursor protein (APP) mutant vs. wild-type (Wt) mice. Tg2576 cells exhibited significantly increased dendritic lengths and volumes and decreased spine densities, while the total number of spines was not different from Wt. Tg2576 and Wt cells did not differ with regard to passive membrane, action potential firing or glutamatergic spontaneous excitatory postsynaptic current properties. Thus, overexpression of mutated APP in young Tg2576 mice leads to significant changes in neuronal morphological properties which do not have readily apparent functional consequences.
Amyloid-beta; Alzheimer's disease; dendritic spine; frontal; patch-clamp; slice; glutamatergic synaptic transmission
rTg4510 transgenic (TG) mice overexpress mutant (P301L) human tau protein. We have compared the dorsal premotor cortex of TG mice versus non-transgenic (NT) mice at 4, 9, and 13 months of age, using light (LM) and electron microscopy (EM). LM assessment shows that cortical thickness in TG mice is reduced by almost 50% from 4 to 13 months of age, while at the same time layer I thickness is reduced by 80%, with most of the cortical thinning occurring between 4 and 9 months. In TG mice, spherical, empty vacuoles, up to 60 μm in diameter, become increasingly abundant with age and by 9 months, pyramidal and non-pyramidal neurons with large intracellular tangles of tau protein are common throughout the cortex. These tangles occur in the perikarya; we have not observed them entering into cellular processes, nor have we observed ghost tangles in the intercellular matrix. In TG mice, nerve fiber pathology is widespread by 13 months, and split myelin sheaths, ballooned sheaths, and swollen axons containing mitochondrial aggregations are all common. Astrocytes become increasingly filled with glial filaments as TG mice age, and microglial cells almost always contain phagocytic inclusions. However, no glial cells are seen to contain tau in their cytoplasm. These observations add to the base of knowledge available on this commonly employed model of tauopathy.
rTg4510; Tauopathy; Neurodegeneration; Pathology; Ultrastructure
Whole-cell patch-clamp recordings and high-resolution 3D morphometric analyses of layer 3 pyramidal neurons in in vitro slices of monkey primary visual cortex (V1) and dorsolateral granular prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) revealed that neurons in these two brain areas possess highly distinctive structural and functional properties. Area V1 pyramidal neurons are much smaller than dlPFC neurons, with significantly less extensive dendritic arbors and far fewer dendritic spines. Relative to dlPFC neurons, V1 neurons have a significantly higher input resistance, depolarized resting membrane potential and higher action potential (AP) firing rates. Most V1 neurons exhibit both phasic and regular-spiking tonic AP firing patterns, while dlPFC neurons exhibit only tonic firing. Spontaneous postsynaptic currents are lower in amplitude and have faster kinetics in V1 than in dlPFC neurons, but are no different in frequency. Three-dimensional reconstructions of V1 and dlPFC neurons were incorporated into computational models containing Hodgkin-Huxley and AMPA- and GABAA-receptor gated channels. Morphology alone largely accounted for observed passive physiological properties, but led to AP firing rates that differed more than observed empirically, and to synaptic responses that opposed empirical results. Accordingly, modeling predicts that active channel conductances differ between V1 and dlPFC neurons. The unique features of V1 and dlPFC neurons are likely fundamental determinants of area-specific network behavior. The compact electrotonic arbor and increased excitability of V1 neurons support the rapid signal integration required for early processing of visual information. The greater connectivity and dendritic complexity of dlPFC neurons likely support higher level cognitive functions including working memory and planning.
The general organization of neocortical connectivity in rhesus monkey is relatively well understood. However, mounting evidence points to an organizing principle that involves clustered synapses at the level of individual dendrites. Several synaptic plasticity studies have reported cooperative interaction between neighboring synapses on a given dendritic branch, which may potentially induce synapse clusters. Additionally, theoretical models have predicted that such cooperativity is advantageous, in that it greatly enhances a neuron’s computational repertoire. However, largely because of the lack of sufficient morphologic data, the existence of clustered synapses in neurons on a global scale has never been established. The majority of excitatory synapses are found within dendritic spines. In this study, we demonstrate that spine clusters do exist on pyramidal neurons by analyzing the three-dimensional locations of ~40,000 spines on 280 apical dendritic branches in layer III of the rhesus monkey prefrontal cortex. By using clustering algorithms and Monte Carlo simulations, we quantify the probability that the observed extent of clustering does not occur randomly. This provides a measure that tests for spine clustering on a global scale, whenever high-resolution morphologic data are available. Here we demonstrate that spine clusters occur significantly more frequently than expected by pure chance and that spine clustering is concentrated in apical terminal branches. These findings indicate that spine clustering is driven by systematic biological processes. We also found that mushroom-shaped and stubby spines are predominant in clusters on dendritic segments that display prolific clustering, independently supporting a causal link between spine morphology and synaptic clustering.
clustering; dendritic spines; plasticity; morphology; image analysis
In neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, neuronal dendrites and dendritic spines undergo significant pathological changes. Because of the determinant role of these highly dynamic structures in signaling by individual neurons and ultimately in the functionality of neuronal networks that mediate cognitive functions, a detailed understanding of these changes is of paramount importance. Mutant murine models, such as the Tg2576 APP mutant mouse and the rTg4510 tau mutant mouse have been developed to provide insight into pathogenesis involving the abnormal production and aggregation of amyloid and tau proteins, because of the key role that these proteins play in neurodegenerative disease. This review showcases the multidimensional approach taken by our collaborative group to increase understanding of pathological mechanisms in neurodegenerative disease using these mouse models. This approach includes analyses of empirical 3D morphological and electrophysiological data acquired from frontal cortical pyramidal neurons using confocal laser scanning microscopy and whole-cell patch-clamp recording techniques, combined with computational modeling methodologies. These collaborative studies are designed to shed insight on the repercussions of dystrophic changes in neocortical neurons, define the cellular phenotype of differential neuronal vulnerability in relevant models of neurodegenerative disease, and provide a basis upon which to develop meaningful therapeutic strategies aimed at preventing, reversing, or compensating for neurodegenerative changes in dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease; Amyloid; Computational modeling; Dendritic spine; Tau; Whole-cell patch-clamp
Whole cell patch-clamp recordings were employed to characterize the electrophysiological properties of layer 5 pyramidal cells in slices of the prefrontal cortex (Area 46) of the rhesus monkey. Four electrophysiologically distinct cell types were discriminated based on distinctive repetitive action potential (AP) firing patterns and single AP characteristics: regular-spiking slowly adapting type-1 cells (RS1; 62%), regular-spiking slowly adapting type-2 cells (RS2; 18%), regular-spiking fast-adapting cells (FA; 15%), and intrinsically bursting cells (IB; 5%). These cells did not differ with regard to their location in layer 5 nor in their dendritic morphology. In RS1 cells, AP threshold and amplitude did not change significantly during a 2-s spike train, whereas in RS2 and FA cells, AP threshold increased significantly and AP amplitude decreased significantly during the train. In FA cells, complete adaptation of AP firing was observed within 600 ms. IB cells displayed an all-or-none burst of three to six APs, followed by RS1-type firing behavior. RS1 cells could be further subdivided into three subtypes. Low-threshold spiking (LTS) RS1 cells exhibited an initial doublet riding on a depolarizing potential at the onset of a spike train and a prominent depolarizing afterpotential (DAP); intermediate RS1 cells (IM) exhibited a DAP, but no initial doublet, and non-LTS RS1 cells exhibited neither a DAP nor an initial doublet. RS2 and FA cells did not exhibit a DAP or initial doublets. The distinctive firing patterns of these diverse layer 5 pyramidal cells may reflect different roles played by these cells in the mediation of subcortical neuronal activity by the dorsolateral PFC.
Structural changes of neurons in the brain during aging are complex and not well understood. Neurons have significant homeostatic control of essential brain functions, including synaptic excitability, gene expression, and metabolic regulation. Any deviations from the norm can have severe consequences as seen in aging and injury. In this review, we present some of the structural adaptations that neurons undergo throughout normal and pathological aging and discuss their effects on electrophysiological properties and cognition. During aging, it is evident that neurons undergo morphological changes such as a reduction in the complexity of dendrite arborization and dendritic length. Spine numbers are also decreased, and because spines are the major sites for excitatory synapses, changes in their numbers could reflect a change in synaptic densities. This idea has been supported by studies that demonstrate a decrease in the overall frequency of spontaneous glutamate receptor-mediated excitatory responses, as well as a decrease in the levels of α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid and N-methyl-d-aspartate receptor expression. Other properties such as γ-aminobutyric acid A receptor-mediated inhibitory responses and action potential firing rates are both significantly increased with age. These findings suggest that age-related neuronal dysfunction, which must underlie observed decline in cognitive function, probably involves a host of other subtle changes within the cortex that could include alterations in receptors, loss of dendrites, and spines and myelin dystrophy, as well as the alterations in synaptic transmission. Together these multiple alterations in the brain may constitute the substrate for age-related loss of cognitive function.
Aging; Alzheimer’s disease; neuroscience; spatial complexity; electrophysiology; dendrites; spines