Scientists discover key signaling pathway that makes young neurons connect

June 20, 2013

Neuroscientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have filled in a significant gap in the scientific understanding of how neurons mature, pointing to a better understanding of some developmental brain disorders.

In the new study, the researchers identified a molecular program that controls an essential step in the fast-growing brains of young . The researchers found that this spurs the growth of neuronal output connections by a mechanism called "mitochondrial capture," which has never been described before.

" that may affect this signaling pathway already have been found in some autism cases," said TSRI Professor Franck Polleux, who led the research, published June 20, 2013 in the journal Cell.

Branching Out

Polleux's laboratory is focused on identifying the signaling pathways that drive , with special attention to the —a recently evolved structure that handles the "higher" cognitive functions in the and is highly developed in humans.

In a widely cited study published in 2007, Polleux's team identified a trigger of an early step in the development of the most important class of neocortical neurons. As these neurons develop following asymmetric division of , they migrate to their proper place in the developing . Meanwhile they start to sprout a root-like mesh of input branches called from one end, and, from the other end, a long output stalk called an axon. Polleux and his colleagues found that the kinase LKB1 provides a key signal for the initiation of axon growth in these immature cortical neurons.

In the new study, Polleux's team followed up this discovery and found that LKB1 also is crucially important for a later stage of these neurons' development: the branching of the end of the axon onto the dendrites of other neurons.

"In experiments with mice, we knocked the LKB1 gene out of immature cortical neurons that had already begun growing an axon, and the most striking effect was a drastic reduction in terminal branching," said Julien Courchet, a research associate in the Polleux laboratory who was a lead co-author of the study. "We saw this also in lab dish experiments, and when we overexpressed the LKB1 gene, the result was a dramatic increase in axon branching."

Further experiments by Courchet showed that LKB1 drives axonal branching by activating another kinase, NUAK1. The next step was to try to understand how this newly identified LKB1-NUAK1 signaling pathway induced the growth of new axon branches.

Stopping the Train in Its Tracks

Following a thin trail of clues, the researchers decided to look at the dynamics of microtubules. These tiny railway-like tracks are laid down within axons for the efficient transport of molecular cargoes and are altered and extended during axonal branching. Although they could find no major change in microtubule dynamics within immature axons lacking LKB1 or NUAK1, the team did discover one striking abnormality in the transport of cargoes along these microtubules. Tiny oxygen-reactors called mitochondria, which are the principal sources of chemical energy in cells, were transported along axons much more actively—and by contrast, became almost immobile when LKB1 and NUAK1 were overexpressed.

But the LKB1-NUAK1 signals weren't just immobilizing mitochondria randomly. They were effectively inducing their capture at points on the axons where axons form synaptic connections with other neurons.

"When we removed LKB1 or NUAK1 in , the mitochondria were no longer captured at these points," said Tommy Lewis, Jr., a research associate in the Polleux Laboratory who was co-lead author of the study.

"We argue that there must be an active 'homing factor' that specifies where these mitochondria stop moving," said Polleux. "And we think that this is essentially what the LKB1-NAUK1 signaling pathway does here."

Looking Ahead

Precisely how the capture of mitochondria at nascent synapses promotes axonal branching is the object of a further line of investigation in the Polleux laboratory. "We think that we have uncovered something very interesting about mitochondrial function at synapses," Polleux said.

In addition to its basic scientific importance, the work is likely to be highly relevant medically. Developmentally related brain disorders such as epilepsy, autism and schizophrenia typically involve abnormalities in neuronal connectivity. Recent genetic surveys have found NUAK1-related gene mutations in some children with autism, for example. "Our study is the first one to identify that NUAK1 plays a crucial role during the establishment of cortical connectivity and therefore suggests why this gene might play a role in autistic disorder," Polleux says.

He notes, too, that declines in normal mitochondrial transport within axons have been observed in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

"In the light of our findings, we wonder if the decreased mitochondrial mobility observed in these cases might be due not to a transport defect, but instead to a defect in mitochondrial capture in aging neurons," he said. "We're eager to start doing experiments to test such possibilities."

Explore further: Study unravels central mystery of Alzheimer's disease

More information: "Terminal Axon Branching Is Regulated by the LKB1-NUAK1 Kinase Pathway via Presynaptic Mitochondrial Capture," Cell, 2013.

Related Stories

Study unravels central mystery of Alzheimer's disease

April 10, 2013
Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have shed light on one of the major toxic mechanisms of Alzheimer's disease. The discoveries could lead to a much better understanding of the Alzheimer's process and how ...

Neuronal regeneration and the two-part design of nerves

June 4, 2013
Researchers at the University of Michigan have evidence that a single gene controls both halves of nerve cells, and their research demonstrates the need to consider that design in the development of new treatments for regeneration ...

Vesicle-attached ATP generator, not mitochondria, powers axonal transport

March 25, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Neurons have developed elaborate mechanisms for transporting critical components, like transmitter-laden vesicles, down their axons to the synaptic terminations. An axon in a blue whale may be several meters ...

Researchers discover how brain circuits can become miswired during development

June 6, 2013
Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College have uncovered a mechanism that guides the exquisite wiring of neural circuits in a developing brain—gaining unprecedented insight into the faulty circuits that may lead to brain ...

Tiny worm sheds light on giant mystery about neurons

April 30, 2013
Scientists have identified a gene that keeps our nerve fibers from clogging up. Researchers in Ken Miller's laboratory at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF) found that the unc-16 gene of the roundworm Caenorhabditis ...

Jammed molecular motors may play a role in the development of ALS

June 12, 2013
Slowdowns in the transport and delivery of nutrients, proteins and signaling molecules within nerve cells may contribute to the development of the neurodegenerative disorder ALS, according to researchers at the University ...

Recommended for you

'Residual echo' of ancient humans in scans may hold clues to mental disorders

July 26, 2017
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have produced the first direct evidence that parts of our brains implicated in mental disorders may be shaped by a "residual echo" from our ancient past. The more ...

Laser used to reawaken lost memories in mice with Alzheimer's disease

July 26, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at Columbia University has found that applying a laser to the part of a mouse brain used for memory storage caused the mice to recall memories lost due to a mouse version of Alzheimer's ...

Cellular roots of anxiety identified

July 26, 2017
From students stressing over exams to workers facing possible layoffs, worrying about the future is a normal and universal experience. But when people's anticipation of bad things to come starts interfering with daily life, ...

Cognitive cross-training enhances learning, study finds

July 25, 2017
Just as athletes cross-train to improve physical skills, those wanting to enhance cognitive skills can benefit from multiple ways of exercising the brain, according to a comprehensive new study from University of Illinois ...

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

Lutein may counter cognitive aging, study finds

July 25, 2017
Spinach and kale are favorites of those looking to stay physically fit, but they also could keep consumers cognitively fit, according to a new study from University of Illinois researchers.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.