Theses Doctoral

Synaptic Elasticity

Yang, Ju

Synapses play a critical role in neural circuits, and their highly specialized structures and biochemical characteristics have been widely studied in learning and memory. Along with their role in signal transmission, synapses also serve as adhesion structures, yet their mechanical characteristics have not received much attention. Given the important role of mechanics in cell adhesion, mechanical studies of synapses could offer insights into synaptic development, maintenance, and function. Here, I investigated synaptic elasticity in cultured rat hippocampal neurons and suggest that mechanical elasticity may be related to synaptic plasticity. I used torsional harmonic atomic force microscopy (TH-AFM) to measure the nanomechanical properties of functional mature excitatory synapses, whose identity and activity was verified by fluorescence microscopy. I combined TH-AFM with transmission electron microscopy and found that high stiffness of synapses originated from postsynaptic spines, not presynaptic boutons. I observed that spines at functional mature excitatory synapses were on average 10 times stiffer than dendritic shafts and that the distribution of spine stiffness exhibited a lognormal-like pattern. Importantly, I found that spine stiffness was correlated with spine size, and it is well established that spine size is correlated with synaptic strength. Based on the stiffness measurements and theoretical modelling of cell adhesion stability, I suggest that stiffness not only helps maintain spine morphology in the presence of synapse adhesion, but also helps stabilize synaptic adhesion. I propose a mechanical synaptic plasticity model. According to this model, mechanical strength leads to functional strength, which could provide a potential causal link between structural plasticity and functional plasticity of synapses.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Biological Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Sahin, Ozgur
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 24, 2018