Dendritic spines, memories, and memories of dendritic spines

October 23, 2013 by John Hewitt report
Cross section of the auditory cortex of a mouse brain. A single neuron is highlighted by green fluorescent protein. Dendritic spines that are visible along the processes correspond to excitatory synapses. Credit: IMP

(Medical Xpress)—Nothing raises the hackles on the neck of a neurobiologist like talk of dendritic spines on neurons. These little outcroppings of membrane and contractile tissue adorn the long apical tendrils of excitatory pyramidal cells in the cortex. They are found on neurons in subcortical organs as well, but for now anyway, the mission is to first define their function where they can best be seen. Researchers at the Institute for Molecular Pathology in Vienna have just published a paper in PNAS where they report their recent findings about pyramidal cell spines in live, behaving mice. They seek to define the role of spines, and plasticity in general in the role of learning and memory.

The tool which lets neurobiologists see spines is the two-photon microscope. Several labs have harnessed this device previously to try to determine how much change, or shall we say movement, occurs in spines during memory formation. Other studies have focused on motor areas of the cortex, and looked at spines during the acquisition of motor skills. The Vienna researchers were interested in looking at the currently hip topic of how the recall of a memory, either just after learning it (the consolidation epoch), or at some time much later, affects the memory itself, and its hypothesized molecular substrate. If only that were something even remotely feasible.

Fortunately, the researchers were not deterred and actually succeeded in watching the brains of mice over extended periods of time during which experiments designed to probe auditory-cued fear conditioning were performed. Needless to say, spines came and went. There really is no perfect metric to define a spine. Generally the concept of "I know one when I see one" suffices. An important question about spines is how long on average do they persist, relative to the transitional period where they are either coming to be, or are being disassembled. This is a difficult thing to quantify because there is no clear guidance on how we should assign a number to a particular configuration of 2d membrane surface contorted through a given 3d space.

Even if such a number was on hand, there is a further complication—spines are not just passively immotile electrical compartments, but rather, they move, just like everything else in the brain—and probably even a fair bit faster. Spine twitching has been known to be a thing for a long time, even Francis Crick had a fair bit to say about that particular curiosity several decades ago. If spines, and the larger neuropil topology as a whole are actually being re-scaled to the tune of a 60% cerebral volume change over any given day—as we now would seem to be assured—is there any convenient candle in the structure that can be used to define it?

Embryologists often watch the nuclei of cells to get a better picture of what is going on inside developing tissue. This is particularly useful for those synticial tissues, like muscle or bone precursors, where cell borders have been dissolved. In neurons though, there are far more features of interest than those that could be characterized just by a nuclei. A full spine load on a pyramidal cell might push upwards of several thousand spines. While not every spine contains them, there is one structure that is the most predictive of the current state of a spine, and where it is headed—the presence of its resident mitochondria. The saying, "know a neuron by its mitochondria," may not have caught on entirely yet, but understanding spines, via mitochodrial proxy may be the best option we have now going forward.

If memory is be to gauged by the mass appearance or loss of spine, there is one caveat. Anyway you slice it, the cortical grey matter is already full. If you add spines, you either need to take away something else, or thicken the and collapse the ventricles and subdural space. If instead you try to hand pick which spines correspond to which skills and memories, what you are essentially doing, is trying to estimate the movements of termites by the behavior of planetary bodies.

Similarly, there is one point that may merit highlighting as far as general methodology of memory, that may or may not be fair. If both crude intimations in c-fos expression, and high-tech two-photon probing of synaptic structures as fine as a spine are offered alongside each other as comparable molecular level indicators of , there may be some cause for concern. In taking our 16 year-old out for a driving lesson, we do not simultaneously discuss both how to walk, and how to pilot a passenger plane in the same breath.

Explore further: New connections between brain cells form in clusters during learning

More information: Dynamics of dendritic spines in the mouse auditory cortex during memory formation and memory recall, PNAS, Published online before print October 22, 2013, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1312508110

Long-lasting changes in synaptic connections induced by relevant experiences are believed to represent the physical correlate of memories. Here, we combined chronic in vivo two-photon imaging of dendritic spines with auditory-cued classical conditioning to test if the formation of a fear memory is associated with structural changes of synapses in the mouse auditory cortex. We find that paired conditioning and unpaired conditioning induce a transient increase in spine formation or spine elimination, respectively. A fraction of spines formed during paired conditioning persists and leaves a long-lasting trace in the network. Memory recall triggered by the reexposure of mice to the sound cue did not lead to changes in spine dynamics. Our findings provide a synaptic mechanism for plasticity in sound responses of auditory cortex neurons induced by auditory-cued fear conditioning; they also show that retrieval of an auditory fear memory does not lead to a recapitulation of structural plasticity in the auditory cortex as observed during initial memory consolidation.

Related Stories

Study in mice links cocaine use to new brain structures

August 25, 2013

Mice given cocaine showed rapid growth in new brain structures associated with learning and memory, according to a research team from the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at UC San Francisco. The findings suggest a ...

Cranial irradiation causes brain degeneration

July 16, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—Cranial irradiation saves the lives of brain cancer patients. It slows cancer progression and increases survival rates. Unfortunately, patients who undergo cranial irradiation often develop problems with ...

Recommended for you

Skin stem cells used to generate new brain cells

April 25, 2017

Using human skin cells, University of California, Irvine neurobiologists and their colleagues have created a method to generate one of the principle cell types of the brain called microglia, which play a key role in preserving ...

How brains process facial expressions

April 25, 2017

Have you ever thought someone was angry at you, but it turned out you were just misreading their facial expression? Caltech researchers have now discovered that one specific region of the brain, called the amygdala, is involved ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Oct 23, 2013
If memory is be to gauged by the mass appearance or loss of spine, there is one caveat. -JH

On a similar caveat:

The storage and processing of auditory stimuli is gauged by the level or amount of brain specific estrogen.
The research did not stop there. Subsequent research papers numbering in the thousands since then shows the storage and processing are reversible events. For example, 'turning off' the 'switch' ( estrogen reduction to the point where storage and processing no longer occurs) then restoring the estrogen levels to pre-reduction levels restores the memory and the processes - without the loss of the memories stored nor the processes enabling neuronal auditory perception.
not rated yet Oct 23, 2013
Ok, I am not arguing that, a few caveats then shall we say. Sounds very reminiscent of the comment in yesterday's post http://medicalxpr...ory.html
Wonder where I can get a bottle of this E-stoff to sprinkle on my computer?

not rated yet Oct 23, 2013
Are cowardly neurons spineless?
not rated yet Oct 24, 2013
"This E-stoff" is the molecular basis to establish and uphold neuronal storage and processes of auditory stimuli.

Anything sounding reminiscent of the comment to your yesterday's post and link is most regrettable.
I understand your response to VJK. The caveats here - yours and mine - however are spot on.
Obviously without "this E-stoff" dendritic spines lose whatever function one assigns them.
not rated yet Oct 24, 2013
To be all that, it seems sex steroid like estrogen and testosterone, or maybe even thyroid, which all work well at really low concentrations, should derive their power not from the receptors they bind, but from something intrinsic to themselves or the way they move.
For some reason I think of birds when I think of estrogen and spines. Is its effect local to the spine, to its mitochondria?
not rated yet Oct 26, 2013
" Is its effect local to the spine, to its mitochondria? - JH"
Good question. Let me know where you want to take this.

Last sentence of old news:
"...we believe that our findings extrapolate to other sensory systems and vertebrate species," says Pinaud. "If this is the case, we are on the way to showing that estrogen is a key molecule for processing information from all the senses."

Read more at:

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.