The term synapse applies to cellular specializations that articulate the processing of information within neural circuits by providing a mechanism for the transfer of information between two different neurons. There are two main modalities of synaptic transmission: chemical and electrical. While most efforts have been dedicated to the understanding of the properties and modifiability of chemical transmission, less is still known regarding the plastic properties of electrical synapses, whose structural correlate is the gap junction. A wealth of data indicates that, rather than passive intercellular channels, electrical synapses are more dynamic and modifiable than was generally perceived. This article will discuss the factors determining the strength of electrical transmission and review current evidence demonstrating its dynamic properties. Like their chemical counterparts, electrical synapses can also be plastic and modifiable.
Electrical synapse; Connexin 36; Synaptic plasticity; Electrical coupling; Auditory; Synchronization; CaMKII
Despite the combination of light-microscopic immunocytochemistry, histochemical mRNA detection techniques and protein reporter systems, progress in identifying the protein composition of neuronal versus glial gap junctions, determination of the differential localization of their constituent connexin proteins in two apposing membranes and understanding human neurological diseases caused by connexin mutations has been problematic due to ambiguities introduced in the cellular and subcellular assignment of connexins. Misassignments occurred primarily because membranes and their constituent proteins are below the limit of resolution of light microscopic imaging techniques. Currently, only serial thin-section transmission electron microscopy and freeze-fracture replica immunogold labeling have sufficient resolution to assign connexin proteins to either or both sides of gap junction plaques. However, freeze-fracture replica immunogold labeling has been limited because conventional freeze fracturing allows retrieval of only one of the two membrane fracture faces within a gap junction, making it difficult to identify connexin coupling partners in hemiplaques removed by fracturing. We now summarize progress in ascertaining the connexin composition of two coupled hemiplaques using matched double-replicas that are labeled simultaneously for multiple connexins. This approach allows unambiguous identification of connexins and determination of the membrane “sidedness” and the identities of connexin coupling partners in homotypic and heterotypic gap junctions of vertebrate neurons.
Astrocyte; Ependymocyte; Glia; Neuron; Oligodendrocyte
Gap junction (GJ) “formation plaques” are distinct membrane domains with GJ precursors; they assemble by means of a series of defined steps. The C-terminus of Cx43 is required for normal progression of assembly, normal aggregation of 10-nm particles into small GJs, and negative regulation of assembly involving protein kinase C.
Using an established gap junction (GJ) assembly system with experimentally reaggregated cells, we analyzed “formation plaques” (FPs), apparent sites of GJ assembly. Employing freeze-fracture electron microscopy methods combined with filipin labeling of sterols and immunolabeling for connexin43 (Cx43), we demonstrated that FPs constitute distinct membrane “domains” and that their characteristic 10-nm particles contain connexin43, thus representing precursors (i.e., GJ hemichannels) engaged in assembly. Analysis of FPs in new systems—HeLa and N2A cells—resolved questions surrounding several key but poorly understood steps in assembly, including matching of FP membranes in apposed cells, reduction in the separation between FP membranes during assembly, and the process of particle aggregation. Findings also indicated that “docking” of GJ hemichannels occurs within FP domains and contributes to reduction of intermembrane separation between FPs. Other experiments demonstrated that FPs develop following a major C-terminal truncation of Cx43 (M257), although assembly was delayed. Particle aggregation also occurred at lower densities, and densities of particles within developing GJ aggregates failed to achieve full-length levels. With regard to regulation, inhibition of assembly following protein kinase C activation failed to occur in the M257 truncation mutants, as measured by intercellular dye transfer. However, several C-terminal serine mutations failed to disrupt inhibition.
Dendrodendritic electrical signaling via gap junctions is now an accepted feature of neuronal communication in mammalian brain, whereas axodendritic and axosomatic gap junctions have rarely been described. We present ultrastructural, immunocytochemical, and dye-coupling evidence for “mixed” (electrical/chemical) synapses on both principal cells and interneurons in adult rat hippocampus. Thin-section electron microscopic images of small gap junction-like appositions were found at mossy fiber (MF) terminals on thorny excrescences of CA3 pyramidal neurons (CA3pyr), apparently forming glutamatergic mixed synapses. Lucifer Yellow injected into weakly fixed CA3pyr was detected in MF axons that contacted four injected CA3pyr, supporting gap junction-mediated coupling between those two types of principal cells. Freeze-fracture replica immunogold labeling revealed diverse sizes and morphologies of connexin-36-containing gap junctions throughout hippocampus. Of 20 immunogold-labeled gap junctions, seven were large (328–1140 connexons), three of which were consistent with electrical synapses between interneurons; but nine were at axon terminal synapses, three of which were immediately adjacent to distinctive glutamate receptor-containing postsynaptic densities, forming mixed glutamatergic synapses. Four others were adjacent to small clusters of immunogold-labeled 10-nm E-face intramembrane particles, apparently representing extrasynaptic glutamate receptor particles. Gap junctions also were on spines in stratum lucidum, stratum oriens, dentate gyrus, and hilus, on both interneurons and unidentified neurons. In addition, one putative GABAergic mixed synapse was found in thin-section images of a CA3pyr, but none were found by immunogold labeling, suggesting the rarity of GABAergic mixed synapses. Cx36-containing gap junctions throughout hippocampus suggest the possibility of reciprocal modulation of electrical and chemical signals in diverse hippocampal neurons.
CA3; dentate gyrus; interneuron; pyramidal neuron; principal cell; mossy fiber; gap junction
The transmembrane connexin proteins of gap junctions link extracellularly to form channels for cell-to-cell exchange of ions and small molecules. Two primary hypotheses of gap junction coupling in the CNS are the following: (1) generalized coupling occurs between neurons and glia, with some connexins expressed in both neurons and glia, and (2) intercellular junctional coupling is restricted to specific coupling partners, with different connexins expressed in each cell type. There is consensus that gap junctions link neurons to neurons and astrocytes to oligodendrocytes, ependymocytes, and other astrocytes. However, unresolved are the existence and degree to which gap junctions occur between oligodendrocytes, between oligodendrocytes and neurons, and between astrocytes and neurons. Using light microscopic immunocytochemistry and freeze–fracture replica immunogold labeling of adult rat CNS, we investigated whether four of the best-characterized CNS connexins are each present in one or more cell types, whether oligodendrocytes also share gap junctions with other oligodendrocytes or with neurons, and whether astrocytes share gap junctions with neurons. Connexin32 (Cx32) was found only in gap junctions of oligodendrocyte plasma membranes, Cx30 and Cx43 were found only in astrocyte membranes, and Cx36 was only in neurons. Oligodendrocytes shared intercellular gap junctions only with astrocytes, with each oligodendrocyte isolated from other oligodendrocytes except via astrocyte intermediaries. Finally, neurons shared gap junctions only with other neurons and not with glial cells. Thus, the different cell types of the CNS express different connexins, which define separate pathways for neuronal versus glial gap junctional communication.
astrocyte; connexin; connexon; gap junction; neuron; oligodendrocyte
The panglial syncytium maintains ionic conditions required for normal neuronal electrical activity in the central nervous system (CNS). Vital among these homeostatic functions is “potassium siphoning”, a process originally proposed to explain astrocytic sequestration and long-distance disposal of K+ released from unmyelinated axons during each action potential. Fundamentally different, more efficient processes are required in myelinated axons, where axonal K+ efflux occurs exclusively beneath and enclosed within the myelin sheath, precluding direct sequestration of K+ by nearby astrocytes. Molecular mechanisms for entry of excess K+ and obligatorily-associated osmotic water from axons into innermost myelin are not well characterized, whereas at the output end, axonally-derived K+ and associated osmotic water are known to be expelled by Kir4.1 and aquaporin-4 channels concentrated in astrocyte endfeet that surround capillaries and that form the glia limitans. Between myelin (input end) and astrocyte endfeet (output end) is a vast network of astrocyte “intermediaries” that are strongly inter-linked, including with myelin, by abundant gap junctions that disperse excess K+ and water throughout the panglial syncytium, thereby greatly reducing K+-induced osmotic swelling of myelin. Here, I review original reports that established the concept of potassium siphoning in unmyelinated CNS axons, summarize recent revolutions in our understanding of K+ efflux during axonal saltatory conduction, then describe additional components required by myelinated axons for a newly-described process of voltage-augmented “dynamic” potassium siphoning. If any of several molecular components of the panglial syncytium are compromised, K+ siphoning is blocked, myelin is destroyed, and axonal saltatory conduction ceases. Thus, a common thread linking several CNS demyelinating diseases is the disruption of potassium siphoning/water transport within the panglial syncytium. Continued progress in molecular identification and subcellular mapping of glial ion and water channels will lead to a better understanding of demyelinating diseases of the CNS and to development of improved treatment regimens.
Mammalian retinas contain abundant neuronal gap junctions, particularly in the inner plexiform layer (IPL), where the two principal neuronal connexin proteins are Cx36 and Cx45. Currently undetermined are coupling relationships between these connexins and whether both are expressed together or separately in a neuronal subtype-specific manner. Although Cx45-expressing neurons strongly couple with Cx36-expressing neurons, possibly via heterotypic gap junctions, Cx45 and Cx36 failed to form functional heterotypic channels in vitro. We now show that Cx36 and Cx45 co-expressed in Hela cells were co-localized in immunofluorescent puncta between contacting cells, demonstrating targeting/scaffolding competence for both connexins in vitro. However, Cx36 and Cx45 expressed separately did not form immunofluorescent puncta containing both connexins, supporting lack of heterotypic coupling competence. In IPL, 87% of Cx45 immunofluorescent puncta were co-localized with Cx36, supporting either widespread heterotypic coupling or bi-homotypic coupling. Ultrastructurally, Cx45 was detected in 9% of IPL gap junction hemiplaques, 90-100% of which also contained Cx36, demonstrating connexin co-expression and co-targeting in virtually all IPL neurons that express Cx45. Moreover, double-replicas revealed both connexins in separate domains mirrored on both sides of matched hemiplaques. With prior evidence that Cx36 interacts with PDZ1 domain of ZO-1, we show that Cx45 interacts with PDZ2 domain of ZO-1, and that Cx36, Cx45 and ZO-1 co-immunoprecipitate, suggesting that ZO-1 provides for co-scaffolding of Cx45 with Cx36. These data document that in Cx45-expressing neurons of IPL, Cx45 is almost always accompanied by Cx36, forming “bi-homotypic” gap junctions, with Cx45 structurally coupling to Cx45 and Cx36 coupling to Cx36.
double-replica; FRIL; heterotypic coupling; homotypic coupling; PDZ domains; SDS-FRL
The cellular localization, relation to other glial connexins (Cx30, Cx32, and Cx43), and developmental expression of Cx29 were investigated in the mouse central nervous system (CNS) with an anti-Cx29 antibody. Cx29 was enriched in subcellular fractions of myelin, and immunofluorescence for Cx29 was localized to oligodendrocytes and myelinated fibers throughout the brain and spinal cord. Oligodendrocyte somata displayed minute Cx29-immunopositive puncta around their periphery and intracellularly. In developing brain, Cx29 levels increased during the first few postnatal weeks and were highest in the adult brain. Immunofluorescence labeling for Cx29 in oligodendrocyte somata was intense at young ages and was dramatically shifted in localization primarily to myelinated fibers in mature CNS. Labeling for Cx32 also was localized to oligodendrocyte somata and myelin and absent in Cx32 knockout mice. Cx29 and Cx32 were minimally colocalized on oligodendrocytes somata and partly colocalized along myelinated fibers. At gap junctions on oligodendrocyte somata, Cx43/Cx32 and Cx30/Cx32 were strongly associated, but there was minimal association of Cx29 and Cx43. Cx32 was very sparsely associated with astrocytic connexins along myelinated fibers. With Cx26, Cx30, and Cx43 expressed in astrocytes and Cx29, Cx32, and Cx47 expressed in oligodendrocytes, the number of connexins localized to gap junctions of glial cells is increased to six. The results suggested that Cx29 in mature CNS contributes minimally to gap junctional intercellular communication in oligodendrocyte cell bodies but rather is targeted to myelin, where it, with Cx32, may contribute to connexin-mediated communication between adjacent layers of uncompacted myelin.
brain; glia; antibodies; intercellular communication; confocal microscopy; Schmidt-Lanterman incisures
Astroctyes express a set of three connexins (Cx26, Cx30, and Cx43) that are contained in astrocyte-to-astrocyte (A/A) gap junctions; oligodendrocytes express a different set of three connexins (Cx29, Cx32, and Cx47) that are contained in the oligodendrocyte side of necessarily heterotypic astrocyte-to-oligodendrocyte (A/O) gap junctions, and there is little ultrastructural evidence for gap junction formation between individual oligodendrocytes. In addition, primarily Cx29 and Cx32 are contained deeper in myelin sheaths, where they form autologous gap junctions at sites of uncompacted myelin. The presence of six connexins in macroglial cell populations has revealed unprecedented complexity of potential connexin coupling partners, and with restricted deployment of gap junctional intercellular communication (GJIC) within the “pan-glial” syncytium. New implications for the organization and regulation of spatial buffering mediated by glial GJIC are derived from recent observations of the existence of separate astrocyte anatomical domains, with only narrow regions of overlap between astrocyte processes at domain borders. Thus, widespread spatial buffering in the CNS may occur not successively through a multitude of processes arising from different astrocytes, but rather in a more orderly fashion from one astrocyte domain to another via intercellular coupling that occurs only at restricted regions of overlap between astrocyte domains, augmented by autocellular coupling that occurs within each domain.
Astrocyte domains; connexins; gap junctions; glia; spatial buffering
Among the 20 members in the connexin family of gap junction proteins, only connexin36 (Cx36) is firmly established to be expressed in neurons and to form electrical synapses at widely distributed interneuronal gap junctions in mammalian brain. Several connexins have recently been reported to interact with the PDZ domain-containing protein zonula occludens-1 (ZO-1), which was originally considered to be associated only with tight junctions, but has recently been reported to associate with other structures including gap junctions in various cell types. Based on the presence of sequence corresponding to a putative PDZ binding motif in Cx36, we investigated anatomical relationships and molecular association of Cx36 with ZO-1. By immunofluorescence, punctate Cx36/ZO-1 colocalization was observed throughout the central nervous system of wild-type mice, whereas labelling for Cx36 was absent in Cx36 knockout mice, confirming the specificity of the anti-Cx36 antibodies employed. By freeze-fracture replica immunogold labelling, Cx36 and ZO-1 in brain were found colocalized within individual ultrastructurally identified gap junction plaques, although some plaques contained only Cx36 whereas others contained only ZO-1. Cx36 from mouse brain and Cx36-transfected HeLa cells was found to coimmunoprecipitate with ZO-1. Unlike other connexins that bind the second of the three PDZ domains in ZO-1, glutathione S-transferase-PDZ pull-down and mutational analyses indicated Cx36 interaction with the first PDZ domain of ZO-1, which required at most the presence of the four c-terminus amino acids of Cx36. These results demonstrating a Cx36/ZO-1 association suggest a regulatory and/or scaffolding role of ZO-1 at gap junctions that form electrical synapses between neurons in mammalian brain.
connexins; electrical synapses; gap junction; neurons; retina
In vertebrate peripheral nerves, the insulating myelin sheath is formed by Schwann cells, which generate flattened membrane processes that spiral around axons and form compact myelin by extrusion of cytoplasm and adhesion of apposed intracellular and extracellular membrane surfaces. Cytoplasm remains within the innermost and outermost tongues, in the paranodal loops bordering nodes of Ranvier and in Schmidt–Lanterman incisures. By immunocytochemistry, connexin32 (Cx32) protein has been demonstrated at paranodal loops and Schmidt–Lanterman incisures, and it is widely assumed that gap junctions are present in these locations, thereby providing a direct radial route for transport of ions and metabolites between cytoplasmic myelin layers. This study used freeze-fracture replica immunogold labeling to detect Cx32 in ultrastructurally defined gap junctions in Schmidt–Lanterman incisures, as well as in a novel location, between the outer two layers of internodal myelin, approximately every micrometer along the entire length of myelin, at the zone between compact myelin and noncompact myelin. Thus, these gap junctions link the partially compacted second layer of myelin to the noncompact outer tongue. Although these gap junctions are unusually small (average, 11 connexon channels), their relative abundance and regular distribution along the zone that is structurally intermediate between compact and noncompact myelin demonstrates the existence of multiple sites for unidirectional or bidirectional transport of water, ions, and small molecules between these two distinct cytoplasmic compartments, possibly to regulate or facilitate myelin compaction or to maintain the transition zone between noncompact and compact myelin.
Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease; connexon; freeze fracture; immunogold labeling; sciatic nerve; tight junction
Odorant/receptor binding and initial olfactory information processing occurs in olfactory receptor neurons (ORNs) within the olfactory epithelium. Subsequent information coding involves high-frequency spike synchronization of paired mitral/tufted cell dendrites within olfactory bulb (OB) glomeruli via positive feedback between glutamate receptors and closely-associated gap junctions. With mRNA for connexins Cx36, Cx43 and Cx45 detected within ORN somata and Cx36 and Cx43 proteins reported in ORN somata and axons, abundant gap junctions were proposed to couple ORNs. We used freeze-fracture replica immunogold labeling (FRIL) and confocal immunofluorescence microscopy to examine Cx36, Cx43 and Cx45 protein in gap junctions in olfactory mucosa, olfactory nerve and OB in adult rats and mice and early postnatal rats. In olfactory mucosa, Cx43 was detected in gap junctions between virtually all intrinsic cell types except ORNs and basal cells; whereas Cx45 was restricted to gap junctions in sustentacular cells. ORN axons contained neither gap junctions nor any of the three connexins. In OB, Cx43 was detected in homologous gap junctions between almost all cell types except neurons and oligodendrocytes. Cx36 and, less abundantly, Cx45 were present in neuronal gap junctions, primarily at “mixed” glutamatergic/electrical synapses between presumptive mitral/tufted cell dendrites. Genomic analysis revealed multiple miRNA (micro interfering RNA) binding sequences in 3′-untranslated regions of Cx36, Cx43 and Cx45 genes, consistent with cell-type-specific post-transcriptional regulation of connexin synthesis. Our data confirm absence of gap junctions between ORNs, and support Cx36- and Cx45-containing gap junctions at glutamatergic mixed synapses between mitral/tufted cells as contributing to higher-order information coding within OB glomeruli.
The neuromuscular junctions and nonjunctional sarcolemmas of mammalian skeletal muscle fibers were studied by conventional thin-section electron microscopy and freeze-fracture techniques. A modified acetylcholinesterase staining procedure that is compatible with light microscopy, conventional thin-section electron microscopy, and freeze-fracture techniques is described. Freeze-fracture replicas were utilized to visualize the internal macromolecular architecture of the nerve terminal membrane, the chemically excitable neuromuscular junction postsynaptic folds, and the electrically excitable nonjunctional sarcolemma. The nerve terminal membrane is characterized by two parallel rows of 100–110-Å particles which may be associated with synpatic vesicle fusion and release. On the postsynpatic folds, irregular rows of densely packed 110–140-Å particles were observed and evidence is assembled which indicates that these large transmembrane macromolecules may represent the morphological correlate for functional acetylcholine receptor activity in mammalian motor endplates. Differences in the size and distribution of particles in mammalian as compared with amphibian and fish postsynaptic junctional membranes are correlated with current biochemical and electron micrograph autoradiographic data. Orthogonal arrays of 60-Å particles were observed in the split postsynaptic sarcolemmas of many diaphragm myofibers. On the basis of differences in the number and distribution of these "square" arrays within the sarcolemmas, two classes of fibers were identified in the diaphragm. Subsequent confirmation of the fiber types as fast- and slow-twitch fibers (Ellisman et al. 1974. J. Cell Biol. 63[2, Pt. 2]:93 a. [Abstr.]) may indicate a possible role for the square arrays in the electrogenic mechanism. Experiments in progress involving specific labeling techniques are expected to permit positive identification of many of these intriguing transmembrane macromolecules.