Rhesus monkeys provide a valuable model for studying the basis of cognitive aging because they are vulnerable to age-related decline in executive function and memory in a manner similar to humans. Some of the behavioral tasks sensitive to the effects of aging are the delayed response working memory test, recognition memory tests including the delayed nonmatching-to-sample and the delayed recognition span task, and tests of executive function including reversal learning and conceptual set-shifting task. Much effort has been directed toward discovering the neurobiological parameters that are coupled to individual differences in age-related cognitive decline. Area 46 of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) has been extensively studied for its critical role in executive function while the hippocampus and related cortical regions have been a major target of research for memory function. Some of the key age-related changes in area 46 include decreases in volume, microcolumn strength, synapse density, and α1- and α2-adrenergic receptor binding densities. All of these measures significantly correlate with cognitive scores. Interestingly, the critical synaptic subtypes associated with cognitive function appear to be different between the dlPFC and the hippocampus. For example, the dendritic spine subtype most critical to task acquisition and vulnerable to aging in area 46 is the thin spine, whereas in the dentate gyrus, the density of large mushroom spines with perforated synapses correlates with memory performance. This review summarizes age-related changes in anatomical, neuronal, and synaptic parameters within brain areas implicated in cognition and whether these changes are associated with cognitive decline.
Aging; Area 46; Dentate gyrus; Executive function; Recognition memory; Perforated synapse
Age-related changes in neural circuits, neural networks, and their plasticity are central to our understanding of age changes in cognition and brain structure and function. This paper summarizes selected findings on these topics presented at the Cognitive Aging Summit II. Specific areas discussed were synaptic vulnerability and plasticity, including the role of different types of synaptic spines, and hormonal effects in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of nonhuman primates, the impact of both compensatory processes and dedifferentiation on demand-dependent differences in prefrontal activation in relation to age and performance, the role of vascular disease, indexed by white matter signal abnormalities, on prefrontal activation during a functional magnetic resonance imaging-based cognitive control paradigm, and the influence of amyloid-β neuropathology on memory performance in older adults and the networks of brain activity underlying variability in performance. A greater understanding of age-related changes in brain plasticity and neural networks in healthy aging and in the presence of underlying vascular disease or amyloid pathology will be essential to identify new targets for intervention. Moreover, this understanding will assist in promoting the utilization of existing interventions, such as lifestyle and therapeutic modifiers of vascular disease.
cognitive changes; aging; Neural networks
Preclinical animal models have provided strong evidence that estrogen therapy (ET) enhances cognition and induces spinogenesis in neuronal circuits. However, clinical studies have been inconsistent, with some studies revealing adverse effects of ET, including an increased risk of dementia. In an effort to bridge this disconnect between the preclinical and clinical data, we have developed a non-human primate (NHP) model of ET combined with high-resolution dendritic spine analysis of dorsolateral prefrontal cortical (dlPFC) neurons. Previously, we reported cyclic ET in aged, ovariectomized NHPs increased spine density on dlPFC neurons. Here, we report that monkeys treated with cyclic E treatment paired with cyclic progesterone (P), continuous E combined with P (either cyclic or continuous), or unopposed continuous E failed to increase spines on dlPFC neurons. Given that the most prevalent form of ET prescribed to women is a combined and continuous E and P, these data bring into convergence the human neuropsychological findings and preclinical neurobiological evidence that standard hormone therapy in women is unlikely to yield the synaptic benefit presumed to underlie the cognitive enhancement reported in animal models.
The estrogen 17β-estradiol (E) increases the axospinous synaptic density and plasticity in the hippocampal CA1 region of young female rats but fails to do so in aged female rats. This E stimulus on synaptic plasticity is associated with the phosphorylation-dependent activation of Akt kinase. Our previous findings demonstrated that increased estrogen levels subsequently increase phosphorylated Akt (pAkt)-immunoreactivity (-IR) within the dendritic shafts and spines of pyramidal neurons in young female rats. Therefore, because Akt can promote cell survival and growth, we tested the hypothesis that the less plastic synapses of aged female rats would contain less E-stimulated pAkt-IR. Here, young (3-4 months) and aged (22-23 months) female rats were ovariectomized seven days prior to a 48-hour administration of either vehicle or E. The pAkt-IR synaptic distribution was then analyzed using post-embedding electron microscopy. In both young and aged rats, pAkt-IR was found in dendritic spines and terminals, and pAkt-IR was particularly abundant at the post-synaptic density. Quantitative analyses revealed that the percentage of pAkt-labeled synapses was significantly greater in young rats compared to aged rats. Nonetheless, E treatment significantly increased pAkt-IR in pre- and post-synaptic profiles of both young and aged rats, although the stimulus in young rats was notably more widespread. These data support the evidence that hormone-activated signaling associated with cell growth and survival is diminished in the aged brain. However, the observation that E can still increase pAkt-IR in aged synapses presents this signaling component as a candidate target for hormone replacement therapies.
Normal aging is associated with impairments in cognitive function, including memory, and with specific and relatively subtle synaptic alterations in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. The authors describe these structural changes reported in monkeys and rodents, how they might affect age-associated cognitive decline and potential strategies to limit their impact.
Preclinical animal models have provided strong evidence that estrogen (E) therapy (ET) enhances cognition and induces spinogenesis in neuronal circuits. However, clinical studies have been inconsistent, with some studies revealing adverse effects of ET, including an increased risk of dementia. In an effort to bridge this disconnect between the preclinical and clinical data, we have developed a nonhuman primate (NHP) model of ET combined with high-resolution dendritic spine analysis of dorsolateral prefrontal cortical (dlPFC) neurons. Previously, we reported cyclic ET in aged, ovariectomized NHPs increased spine density on dlPFC neurons. Here, we report that monkeys treated with cyclic E treatment paired with cyclic progesterone (P), continuous E combined with P (either cyclic or continuous), or unopposed continuous E failed to increase spines on dlPFC neurons. Given that the most prevalent form of ET prescribed to women is a combined and continuous E and P, these data bring into convergence the human neuropsychological findings and preclinical neurobiological evidence that standard hormone therapy in women is unlikely to yield the synaptic benefit presumed to underlie the cognitive enhancement reported in animal models.
Morphological features such as size, shape and density of dendritic spines have been shown to reflect important synaptic functional attributes and potential for plasticity. Here we describe in detail a protocol for obtaining detailed morphometric analysis of spines using microinjection of fluorescent dyes, high resolution confocal microscopy, deconvolution and image analysis using NeuronStudio. Recent technical advancements include better preservation of tissue resulting in prolonged ability to microinject, and algorithmic improvements that compensate for the residual Z-smear inherent in all optical imaging. Confocal imaging parameters were probed systematically for the identification of both optimal resolution as well as highest efficiency. When combined, our methods yield size and density measurements comparable to serial section transmission electron microscopy in a fraction of the time. An experiment containing 3 experimental groups with 8 subjects in each can take as little as one month if optimized for speed, or approximately 4 to 5 months if the highest resolution and morphometric detail is sought.
microinjection; dendritic spines; confocal microscopy; morphometrics; image analysis
Aged rhesus monkeys exhibit deficits in hippocampus-dependent memory, similar to aging humans. Here we explored the basis of cognitive decline by first testing young adult and aged monkeys on a standard recognition memory test (delayed nonmatching-to-sample test; DNMS). Next we quantified synaptic density and morphology in the hippocampal dentate gyrus (DG) outer (OML) and inner molecular layer (IML). Consistent with previous findings, aged monkeys were slow to learn DNMS initially, and they performed significantly worse than young subjects when challenged with longer retention intervals. Although OML and IML synaptic parameters failed to differ across the young and aged groups, the density of perforated synapses in the OML was coupled with recognition memory accuracy. Independent of chronological age, monkeys classified on the basis of menses data as peri/post-menopausal scored worse on DNMS, and displayed lower OML perforated synapse density, than pre-menopausal monkeys. These results suggest that naturally occurring reproductive senescence potently influences synaptic connectivity in the DG OML, contributing to individual differences in the course of normal cognitive aging.
delayed nonmatching-to-sample; disector method; estrogen; hippocampus; menopause; outer molecular layer; perforated synapse; post-synaptic density; recognition memory
Rhesus monkeys provide a valuable model for studying the neurobiological basis of cognitive aging, because they are vulnerable to age-related memory decline in a manner similar to humans. In this study, young and aged monkeys were first tested on a well-characterized recognition memory test (delayed nonmatching-to-sample; DNMS). Then, electron microscopic immunocytochemistry was performed to determine the subcellular localization of two proteins in the hippocampal dentate gyrus (DG): the GluA2 subunit of the glutamate alpha-amino-3-hydroxyl-5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionate (AMPA) receptor and the atypical protein kinase C ζ isoform (PKMζ). PKMζ promotes memory storage by regulating GluA2-containing AMPA receptor trafficking. Thus, we examined whether the distribution of GluA2 and PKMζ is altered with aging in DG axospinous synapses and whether it is coupled with memory deficits. Monkeys with faster DNMS task acquisition and more accurate recognition memory exhibited higher proportions of dendritic spines coexpressing GluA2 and PKMζ. These double-labeled spines had larger synapses, as measured by postsynaptic density area, than single- and unlabeled spines. Within this population of double-labeled spines, aged monkeys compared to young expressed a lower density of synaptic GluA2 immunogold labeling, which correlated with lower recognition accuracy. Additionally, higher density of synaptic PKMζ labeling in double-labeled spines correlated with both faster task acquisition and better retention. Together, these findings suggest that age-related impairment in maintenance of GluA2 at the synapse in the primate hippocampus is coupled with memory deficits.
AMPA receptor; delayed nonmatching-to-sample test; GluR2; immunogold; PKMζ; recognition memory
Numerous studies have found that chronic cocaine increases dendritic spine density of medium spiny neurons in the nucleus accumbens (NAc). Here, we employed single cell microinjections and advanced 3D imaging and analysis techniques to extend these findings in several important ways: by assessing cocaine regulation of dendritic spines in the core versus shell subregions of NAc in the mouse, over a broad time course (4 hours, 24 hours, or 28 days) of withdrawal from chronic cocaine, and with a particular focus on proximal versus distal dendrites. Our data demonstrate subregion-specific, and in some cases opposite, regulation of spines by cocaine on proximal but not distal dendrites. Notably, all observed density changes were attributable to selective regulation of thin spines. At 4 hours post-injection, the proximal spine density is unchanged in the core but significantly increased in the shell. At 24 hours, the density of proximal dendritic spines is reduced in the core but increased in the shell. Such down-regulation of thin spines in the core persists through 28 days of withdrawal, while the spine density in the shell returns to baseline levels. Consistent with previous results, dendritic tips exhibited up-regulation of dendritic spines after 24 hours of withdrawal, an effect localized to the shell. The divergence in regulation of proximal spine density in NAc core versus shell by cocaine correlates with recently reported electrophysiological data from a similar drug administration regimen and might represent a key mediator of changes in the reward circuit that drive aspects of addiction.
In the past few decades it has become clear that estrogen signaling plays a much larger role in modulating the cognitive centers of the brain than previously thought possible. We have developed a nonhuman primate (NHP) model to investigate the relationships between estradiol (E) and cognitive aging. Our studies of cyclical E treatment in ovariectomized (OVX) young and aged rhesus monkeys have revealed compelling cognitive and synaptic effects of E in the context of aging. Delayed response (DR), a task that is particularly dependent on integrity of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) area 46 revealed the following: 1) that young OVX rhesus monkeys perform equally well whether treated with E or vehicle (V), and 2) that aged OVX animals given E perform as well as young adults with or without E, whereas OVX V-treated aged animals display significant DR impairment. We have analyzed the structure of layer III pyramidal cells in area 46 in these same monkeys. We found both age and treatment effects on these neurons that are consistent with behavioral data. Briefly, reconstructions of pyramidal neurons in area 46 from these monkeys showed that cyclical E increased the density of small, thin spines in both young and aged monkeys. However, this effect of E was against a background of age-related loss of small, thin spines, leaving aged V-treated monkeys with a particularly low density of these highly plastic spines and vulnerable to cognitive decline. Our current interpretation is that E not only plays a critically important role in maintaining spine number, but also enables synaptic plasticity through a cyclical increase in small highly plastic spines that may be stabilized in the context of learning. Interestingly, recent studies demonstrate that chronic E is less effective at inducing spinogenesis than cyclical E. We have begun to link certain molecular attributes of excitatory synapses in area 46 to E effects and cognitive performance in these monkeys. Given the importance of synaptic estrogen receptor α (ER-α) in rat hippocampus, we focused our initial studies on synaptic ER-α in area 46. Three key findings have emerged from these studies: 1) synaptic ER-α is present in axospinous synapses in area 46; 2) it is stable across treatment and age groups (which is not the case in rat hippocampus); and 3) the abundance and distribution of synaptic ER-α is a key correlate of individual variation in cognitive performance in certain age and treatment groups. These findings have important implications for the design of hormone treatment strategies for both surgically and naturally menopausal women.
Prefrontal cortex; estrogen; aging; primate; cognition; hormone replacement therapy
Cognitive functions that require the prefrontal cortex are highly sensitive to aging in humans, non-human primates, and rodents, although the neurobiological correlates of this vulnerability remain largely unknown. It has been proposed that dendritic spines represent the primary site of structural plasticity in the adult brain, and recent data have supported the hypothesis that aging is associated with alterations of dendritic spine morphology and plasticity in prefrontal cortex. However, no study to date has directly examined whether aging alters the capacity for experience-dependent spine plasticity in aging prefrontal neurons. To address this possibility we used young, middle-aged, and aged rats in a behavioral stress paradigm known to produce spine remodeling in prefrontal cortical neurons. In young rats, stress resulted in dendritic spine loss and altered patterns of spine morphology; in contrast, spines from middle-aged and aged animals were remarkably stable and did not show evidence of remodeling. The loss of stress-induced spine plasticity observed in aging rats occurred alongside robust age-related reductions in spine density and shifts in remaining spine morphology. Taken together, the data presented here provide the first evidence that experience-dependent spine plasticity is altered by aging in prefrontal cortex, and support a model in which dendritic spines become progressively less plastic in the aging brain.
stress; resilience; prelimbic cortex; confocal microscopy; synapse
Age-related memory impairment occurs in many mammalian species including humans. Moreover, women undergoing the menopausal transition often complain of problems with memory. We recently reported that rhesus monkeys display age- and menopause-related recognition memory impairment on a hippocampus-reliant test (delayed nonmatching-to-sample; DNMS). In the same monkeys, perforated synapse densities in the dentate gyrus outer molecular layer (OML) correlated with DNMS recognition accuracy, while total axospinous synapse density was similar across age and menses groups. The current study examined whether synaptic characteristics of OML axonal boutons are coupled with age- or menopause-related memory deficits. Using serial section electron microscopy, we measured the frequencies of single-synapse boutons (SSBs), multiple-synapse boutons (MSBs), and boutons with no apparent synaptic contacts (non-synaptic boutons, NSBs) in the OML. Aged females had double the percentage of NSBs as compared to young females and this measure correlated positively and inversely with DNMS acquisition (number of trials to criterion) and delay performance (average accuracy), respectively. Aged compared to young females also had a lower frequency of MSBs and a lower number of synaptic contacts per MSB, and the latter variable inversely correlated with DNMS acquisition. Although proportions of NSBs, SSBs and MSBs were similar across menses groups, compared to pre-menopausal monkeys, peri/post-menopausal monkeys had fewer MSBs contacting one or more segmented perforated synapse and the abundance of this bouton subtype positively correlated with DNMS performance. These results suggest that age- and menopause-related shifts in OML synaptic subtypes may be coupled with deficits in task acquisition and recognition memory.
delayed nonmatching-to-sample test; menopause; multiple-synapse bouton; serial sections; recognition memory
Estradiol (E) mediates increased synaptogenesis in the hippocampal CA1 stratum radiatum (sr) and enhances memory in young and some aged female rats, depending on dose and age. Young females rats express more estrogen receptor α (ERα) immunolabeling in CA1sr spine synapse complexes than aged rats and ERα regulation is E sensitive in young but not aged rats. The current study examined whether estrogen receptor β (ERβ) expression in spine synapse complexes may be altered by age or E treatment. Young (3–4 months) and aged (22–23 months) female rats were ovariectomized 7 days prior to implantation of silastic capsules containing either vehicle (cholesterol) or E (10% in cholesterol) for 2 days. ERβ immunoreactivity (ir) in CA1sr was quantitatively analyzed using post-embedding electron microscopy. ERβ-ir was more prominent postsynaptically than presynaptically and both age and E treatment affected its synaptic distribution. While age decreased the spine synaptic complex localization of ERβ-ir (i.e., within 60 nm of the pre- and post-synaptic membranes), E treatment increased synaptic ERβ in both young and aged rats. In addition, the E treatment, but not age, increased dendritic shaft labeling. This data demonstrates that like ERα the levels of ERβ-ir decrease in CA1 axospinous synapses with age, however, unlike ERα the levels of ERβ-ir increase in these synapses in both young and aged rats in response to E. This suggests that synaptic ERβ may be a more responsive target to E, particularly in aged females.
The neurobiological underpinnings of mood and anxiety disorders have been linked to the nucleus accumbens (NAc), a region important in processing the rewarding and emotional salience of stimuli. Using chronic social defeat stress, an animal model of mood and anxiety disorders, we investigated whether alterations in synaptic plasticity are responsible for the long-lasting behavioral symptoms induced by this form of stress. We hypothesized that chronic social defeat stress alters synaptic strength or connectivity of medium spiny neurons (MSNs) in the NAc to induce social avoidance. To test this, we analyzed the synaptic profile of MSNs via confocal imaging of Lucifer-yellow-filled cells, ultrastructural analysis of the postsynaptic density, and electrophysiological recordings of miniature EPSCs (mEPSCs) in mice after social defeat. We found that NAc MSNs have more stubby spine structures with smaller postsynaptic densities and an increase in the frequency of mEPSCs after social defeat. In parallel to these structural changes, we observed significant increases in IκB kinase (IKK) in the NAc after social defeat, a molecular pathway that has been shown to regulate neuronal morphology. Indeed, we find using viral-mediated gene transfer of dominant-negative and constitutively active IKK mutants that activation of IKK signaling pathways during social defeat is both necessary and sufficient to induce synaptic alterations and behavioral effects of the stress. These studies establish a causal role for IKK in regulating stress-induced adaptive plasticity and may present a novel target for drug development in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders in humans.
We have recently reported in male rats that medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) neurons that project to the basolateral nucleus of the amygdala (BLA) are resilient to stress-induced dendritic remodeling. The present study investigated whether this also occurs in female rats. This pathway was identified using the retrograde tracer Fast Blue injected into the BLA of ovariectomized female rats with estrogen replacement (OVX + E) and without (OVX + veh). Animals were exposed for 10 days either to 2-h immobilization stress or to home cage rest, after which layer III mPFC neurons that were either retrogradely labeled by Fast Blue or unlabeled were filled with Lucifer Yellow and analyzed for apical dendritic length and spine density. No dendritic remodeling occurred in unlabeled neurons from OVX + veh or OVX + E animals. In BLA-projecting neurons, however, stress had no effect on length in OVX + veh animals, but stressed OVX + E females showed greater dendritic length than controls at intermediate branches. Stress also caused an increase in spine density in all neurons in OVX + veh animals and a spine density increase in BLA-projecting neurons in OVX + E females. Estrogen also increased spine density on BLA-projecting neurons in unstressed animals. These data demonstrate both independent effects of estrogen on pyramidal cell morphology and effects that are interactive with stress, with the BLA-projecting neurons being sensitive to both kinds of effects.
connectivity; dendritic arborization; medial prefrontal cortex; neural plasticity; sex difference
Neurogenesis occurs continually throughout life in all mammals and the extent of neurogenesis is influenced by many factors including gonadal hormones. Most research regarding hormones and neurogenesis has been performed on non-primate species. To determine whether gonadal hormones can modulate endogenous neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus (DG) of the hippocampus in non-human primates, ovariectomized (OVX) female rhesus monkeys received continuous, unopposed β-estradiol (OVX-E-Con), cyclic unopposed β-estradiol (OVX-E-Cyc), continuous β-estradiol + cyclic progesterone (OVX-E-Con+P-Cyc), or control (OVX-Veh) treatments. At week 29, all monkeys received BrdU injections for four consecutive days, in addition to the ongoing treatment. Twenty days after the last BrdU injection, all animals were sacrificed for tissue collection. In DG of hippocampus, scattered BrdU-ir cells were observed mainly in the subgranular zone (SGZ) and in the granule cell layer and occasionally these BrdU-ir cells in the SGZ formed clusters containing between 2–5 cells. In the granule cell layer and SGZ, virtually none of the BrdU-ir cells were either Dcx, a marker of immature neurons, or GFAP positive. However, an occasional BrdU-ir cell was positive for both neuronal marker NeuN or β III-tubulin. Unbiased stereological analysis of BrdU-ir cells within the SGZ and the granule cell layer of DG revealed that among the experimental groups, there was no significant difference in number of BrdU-ir cells within the SGZ and the granule cell layer of the DG: OVX-E-Con (1801+218.7), OVX-E-Cyc (1783+415.6), OVX-E-Con+P-Cyc (1721+229.6), and OVX-Veh (1263+106.3), but a trend towards increased BrdU-ir cells was observed in all the experimental groups.
monkey; hippocampal neurogenesis; dentate gyrus; estrogen
The size of dendritic spines and postsynaptic densities (PSDs) is well-known to be correlated with molecular and functional characteristics of the synapse. Thus, the development of microscopy methods that allow high throughput quantification and measurement of PSDs is a contemporary need in the field of neurobiology. While the gold standard for measurement of sub-micrometer structures remains electron microscopy (EM), this method is exceedingly laborious and therefore not always feasible. Immunohistochemistry (IHC) is a much faster technique for identifying biological structures such as PSDs, but the fluorescent images resulting from it have traditionally been harder to interpret and quantify. Here, we report on two new image analysis tools that result in accurate size and density measurements of fluorescent puncta. Anti-PSD-95 staining was used to target synapses. The new technique of vamping, using Volume Assisted Measurement of Puncta in 2 and 3 Dimensions (VAMP2D and VAMP3D) respectively, is based on stereological principles. The fully automated image analysis tool was tested on the same subjects for whom we had previously obtained EM measurements of PSD size and/or density. Based on highly consistent results between data obtained by each of these methods, vamping offers an expedient alternative to EM that can nonetheless deliver a high level of accuracy in measuring sub-cellular structures.
Confocal microscopy; electron microscopy; image analysis; stereology; PSD-95; postsynaptic densities
Hippocampal dendritic spine and synapse numbers in female rats vary across the estrous cycle and following experimental manipulation of hormone levels in adulthood. Based on behavioral studies demonstrating that learning patterns are altered following puberty, we hypothesized that dendritic spine number in rat hippocampal CA1 region would change post-pubertally. Female Sprague-Dawley rats were divided into prepubertal (postnatal day (P) 22), peripubertal (P35) and post-pubertal (P49) groups, with the progression of puberty evaluated by vaginal opening, and estrous cyclicity subsequently assessed by daily vaginal smears. Spinophilin immunoreactivity in dendritic spines was used as an index of spinogenesis in area CA1 stratum radiatum (CA1sr) of hippocampus. First, electron microscopy analyses confirmed the presence of spinophilin specifically in dendritic spines of CA1sr, supporting spinophilin as a reliable marker of hippocampal spines in young female rats. Second, stereologic analysis was performed to assess the total number of spinophilin-immunoreactive puncta (i.e. spines) and CA1sr volume in developing rats. Our results indicated that the number of spinophilin-immunoreactive spines in CA1sr was decreased 46% in the post-pubertal group compared to the two younger groups, whereas the volume of the hippocampus underwent an overall increase during this same developmental time frame. Third, to determine a potential role of estradiol in this process, an additional group of rats was ovariectomized (OVX) prepubertally at P22, then treated with estradiol or vehicle at P35, and spinophilin quantified as above in rats perfused on P49. No difference in spinophilin puncta number was found in OVX rats between the two hormone groups, suggesting that this developmental decrease is independent of peripheral estradiol. These changes in spine density coincident with puberty may be related to altered hippocampal plasticity and synaptic consolidation at this phase of maturity.
Puberty; dendritic spine; hippocampus; CA1; spinophilin; estrogen; synaptic plasticity; spinogenesis
Chronic stress has been shown in animal models to result in altered dendritic morphology of pyramidal neurons of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). It has been hypothesized that the stress-induced dendritic retractions and spine loss lead to disrupted connectivity that results in stress-induced functional impairment of mPFC. While these alterations were initially viewed as a neurodegenerative event, it has recently been established that stress induced dendritic alterations are reversible if animals are given time to recover from chronic stress. However, whether spine growth accompanies dendritic extension remains to be demonstrated. It is also not known if recovery-phase dendritic extension allows for re-establishment of functional capacity. The goal of this study, therefore, was to characterize the structural and functional effects of chronic stress and recovery on the infralimbic (IL) region of the rat mPFC. We compared neuronal morphology of layer V IL pyramidal neurons from animals subjected to 21 days of chronic restraint stress (CRS) to those that experienced CRS followed by a 21 day recovery period. Layer V pyramidal cell functional capacity was assessed by intra-IL long-term potentiation (LTP) both in the absence and presence of SKF38393, a dopamine receptor partial agonist and a known PFC LTP modulator. We found that stress-induced IL apical dendritic retraction and spine loss co-occur with receptor-mediated impairments to catecholaminergic facilitation of synaptic plasticity. We also found that while post-stress recovery did not reverse distal dendritic retraction, it did result in over-extension of proximal dendritic neuroarchitecture and spine growth as well as a full reversal of CRS-induced impairments to catecholaminergic-mediated synaptic plasticity. Our results support the hypothesis that disease-related PFC dysfunction is a consequence of network disruption secondary to altered structural and functional plasticity and that circuitry reestablishment may underlie elements of recovery. Accordingly, we believe that pharmacological treatments targeted at preventing dendritic retraction and spine loss or encouraging circuitry reestablishment and stabilization may be advantageous in the prevention and treatment of mood and anxiety disorders.
infralimbic; dendritic morphology; dendritic spines; dopamine; long-term potentiation
Neuronal networks in the prefrontal cortex mediate the highest levels of cognitive processing and decision making, and the capacity to perform these functions is among the cognitive features most vulnerable to aging. Despite much research, the neurobiological basis of age-related compromised prefrontal function remains elusive. Many investigators have hypothesized that exposure to stress may accelerate cognitive aging, though few studies have directly tested this hypothesis and even fewer have investigated a neuronal basis for such effects. It is known that in young animals, stress causes morphological remodeling of prefrontal pyramidal neurons that is reversible. The present studies sought to determine whether age influences the reversibility of stress-induced morphological plasticity in rat prefrontal neurons. We hypothesized that neocortical structural resilience is compromised in normal aging. To directly test this hypothesis we utilized a well-characterized chronic restraint stress paradigm, with an additional group allowed to recover from the stress paradigm, in 3, 12 and 20-month old male rats. In young animals, stress induced reductions of apical dendritic length and branch number, which were reversed with recovery; in contrast, middle-aged and aged rats failed to show reversible morphological remodeling when subjected to the same stress and recovery paradigm. The data presented here provide evidence that aging is accompanied by selective impairments in long-term neocortical morphological plasticity.
aging; stress; prefrontal cortex; neuron; dendrite; plasticity
The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) has been implicated as a site of dysfunction and abnormal morphology in major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, two illnesses that can be brought on by exposure to stress. In animal models, stress has long been shown to induce impairments in tasks known to be mediated by the mPFC, and recent work has demonstrated that chronic stress can lead to morphological changes in mPFC pyramidal cells. This review explores the current literature on stress-induced dendritic remodeling in the mPFC, with particular focus on new findings that illuminate modulators of these effects.
Chronic stress exposure has been reported to induce dendritic remodeling in several brain regions, but it is not known whether individual neural circuits show distinct patterns of remodeling. The current study tested the hypothesis that the projections from the infralimbic (IL) area of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) to the basolateral nucleus of the amygdala (BLA), a pathway relevant to stress-related mental illnesses like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, would have a unique pattern of remodeling in response to chronic stress. The retrograde tracer FastBlue was injected into male rats’ BLA or entorhinal cortex (EC) 1 week prior to 10 days of immobilization stress. After cessation of stress, FastBlue-labeled and unlabeled IL pyaramidal neurons were loaded with fluorescent dye Lucifer Yellow to visualize dendritic arborization and spine density. As has been previously reported, randomly selected (non-FastBlue-labeled) neurons showed stress-induced dendritic retraction in apical dendrites, an effect also seen in EC-projecting neurons. In contrast, BLA-projecting neurons showed no remodeling with stress, suggesting that this pathway may be particularly resilient against the effects of stress. No neurons showed stress-related changes in spine density, contrasting with reports that more dorsal areas of the mPFC show stress-induced decreases in spine density. Such region- and circuit-specificity in response to stress could contribute to the development of stress-related mental illnesses.
amygdala; chronic stress; connectivity; infralimbic cortex; neural plasticity; spine density
On 28–29 September 2004, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) convened scientists for a workshop on the aging female brain focused on translating into clinical practice discoveries concerning estrogens and progestogens. Workshop objectives were to examine effects of estrogen and progestogen on brain and cognitive function in relation to aging, to examine consistencies and apparent discrepancies between Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study findings and other research on cognitive function, to determine whether additional hormone interventions could be developed in this area, and to offer advice on design of clinical trials for other interventions that might ameliorate cognitive aging. Following the workshop, participants joined by other interested scientists organized into regional work groups to continue the dialogue begun in Bethesda and to propose recommendations for NIA. The resulting recommendations, referred to as the “Frontiers Proposal for Estrogen and Cognitive Aging”, acknowledge the persistence of critical gaps in our understanding of how decline in ovarian steroid secretion during reproductive aging and use of ovarian steroid hormone therapy affect normal brain function and risk for late-life neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. There is a pressing need for preclinical, human, and integrated studies on the relationship between the menopausal transition and midlife exposures to estrogens, progestogens and related compounds, and risks for age-associated cognitive disorders. Research is also needed on better predictors of adverse cognitive outcomes, valid biomarkers for risks associated with hormone therapy use, enhanced tools for monitoring brain function and disease progression, and novel forms of therapy for improving long-term cognitive outcomes.
Aging; Alzheimer’s disease; Cognition; Dementia; Estrogen; Menopause; Progestogen
Anatomical alterations in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) are associated with hypothalamo-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation, altered stress hormone levels, and psychiatric symptoms of stress-related mental illnesses. Functional imaging studies reveal impairment and shrinkage of the mPFC in such conditions, and these findings are paralleled by experimental studies showing dendritic retraction and spine loss following repeated stress in rodents. Here we extend this characterization to how repeated stress affects dendritic spine morphology in mPFC through the utilization of an automated approach which rapidly digitizes, reconstructs 3-dimensionally, and calculates geometric features of neurons. Rats were perfused after being subjected to 3 weeks of daily restraint stress (6 hours/day), and intracellular injections of Lucifer Yellow were made in layers II/III pyramidal neurons in the dorsal mPFC. To reveal spines in all angles of orientation, deconvolved high-resolution confocal laser scanning microscopy image stacks of dendritic segments were reconstructed and analyzed for spine volume, surface area, and length using a Rayburst-based automated approach (8,091 and 8,987 spines for control and stress, respectively). We found that repeated stress results in an overall decrease in mean dendritic spine volume and surface area, which was most pronounced in the distal portion of apical dendritic fields. Moreover, we observed an overall shift in the population of spines, manifested by a reduction in large spines and increase in small spines. These results suggest a failure of spines to mature and stabilize following repeated stress, and are likely to have major repercussions on function, receptor expression, and synaptic efficacy.
dendritic spine; morphometry; plasticity; prefrontal cortex; stress