The power of the nervous system:
The astonishing power of the nervous system does not reside in a single neuron. (That said, an advanced supercomputer is required for the task of modelling the processing power of even a single neuron).
Nervous tissue is immensely powerful because of the rich connectivity between neurons. A 1mm voxel of cerebral cortex (a standard fMRI unit), contains ~300 million synaptic connections and ~50 thousand neurons [ref]. Scaled up to the whole human brain, there are estimated to be several hundred trillion synaptic connections within a total pool of ~100 billion neurons. Neuronal networks are the foundation of, perception, movement, thinking, memory and the personality.
A crucial property of neuronal networks is that they learn from experience. Experience may stem from the external world (sensation) or the inner world. Learning is achieved by adjusting the strength of the connections between neurons. New connections can form, and weak connections wither away – essentially a process of re-wiring. Taking up a musical instrument or a new language, for example, constitutes a major re-wiring exercise, although higher, more mysterious faculties – such as selfhood, agency and individual identity – are already wired-up in infancy, and remain a foundation throughout life, except if threatened by the most severe psychiatric disorders.
Alzheimer’s disease is the prototypical example of a network illness. Progressive shrivelling of the network mirrors the decline of the faculties, from initial problems with memory right up to the disintegration of selfhood.
Network health is vital for mental health. The stabilisation of essential connections, the formation of new connections and the controlled elimination of redundant connections involves many components.
- There are components which span the gap between nerve terminals and dendritic spines to ensure that connections remain tightly bound [link].
- There are signalling pathways which control the dynamic, flexible actin scaffold which give terminals and spines their anatomical structure.
- There is, ready-to-hand, protein-synthesis machinery for making additional spines as learning proceeds.
- Finally, and most recently explored, there are mechanisms for ‘clearing up’ the debris when connections are no longer required. Such components (microglia, complement proteins) are much more familiar in their role as immune cells and immune signals, but their role extends beyond inflammation. Microglia and complement are now recognised as key components in the wiring of the brain as it learns and develops.
Major psychiatric illness
Where those components involved in the function and structure of synaptic connections are defective, psychiatric illness can result. Mutations in the components which bind the nerve terminal and dendritic spine are a cause of autism. The cause of many learning disability cases, hitherto unknown, are mutations in proteins which control the actin scaffold. The psychiatric manifestations of Fragile X syndrome (intellectual deficits / autistic features / hyperactivity) result from abnormal protein synthesis in dendritic spines and subsequent abnormal local wiring.
Microglia & complement proteins
The latest components to receive attention, as pertains to psychiatric illness are the microglia and their signalling pathways, specifically complement proteins.
Complement proteins function as a tag, essentially an ‘eat-me’ signal, on synapses destined for elimination. The tag is recognised by the phagocytic microglia which engulf and clear the redundant synaptic elements [link].
Although the role of immune components in psychiatric illness has become a hot topic, many researchers are still accustomed to regard microglia and complement in the context of inflammation rather than CNS re-wiring. Both major depression and schizophrenia, have been linked with abnormal immune components, but neither disorder is inflammatory in the same sense as encephalitis or meningitis. The main histological finding in schizophrenia is decreased connectivity between neurons, not inflamed nervous tissue. Similarly, an anatomical correlate of depression is impoverished connectivity in the hippocampus, not inflammation.
A major development in Alzheimer’s research has been the recognition of up-regulated complement proteins and microglial phagocytosis commensurate with the loss of neuronal connections. The crucial observation is that such changes occur prior to amyloid deposition and tangle formation [link]. Alzheimer’s appears to be a disorder of runaway synaptic loss. Drug discovery efforts are aimed at blocking complement protein receptors to protect synapses [link].
Schizophrenia has been associated with changes in the genes coding for a specific complement protein (C4A). Knockout of the C4A gene in an animal model causes a marked alteration in the pruning of synaptic connections in later life [link]. Schizophrenia, albeit to a far less extent than Alzheimer’s, is regarded as a disorder of impoverished connectivity, (whereas Autism is associated with increased dendritic spines and increased connectivity) [link].
Hold on – what about the ‘dominant’ wet-ware hypotheses?
An older generation of psychiatric researchers may ask where dopamine [link]] and perhaps glutamate [link] fit into a model of psychiatric illness in which abnormal connectivity between neurons appears to carry robust explanatory power. Earlier models posited that an excess or deficiency of neurotransmitter or receptors lay at the root of major depression and schizophrenia. Such models stemmed from the relatively primitive knowledge of the synapse available at the time (circa 1965-1975). Then, the hot topics in neuroscience were; the nature of neurotransmitter release (Sir Bernard Katz, UCL) and the ‘visualisation’ of receptors (Solomon Snyder, John Hopkins).
The answer (to the question of how glutamate and dopamine are accommodated) is fairly straightforward: Glutamate (finally admitted to the neurotransmitter club circa 1983-87) is the fast neurotransmitter between nerve terminals and dendritic spines, throughout nervous tissue. Dopamine determines the strength of the connection between the glutamate terminal and the dendritic spine within specific CNS structures. Dopamine functions as a teaching signal; adjusting connectivity and promoting learning in higher centres.
The obvious strategy of searching for molecules which can impact on connectivity is well underway.
That said, existing psychiatric treatments, such as antidepressants, lithium and dopamine antipsychotics have an impact upon connectivity to the extent that structural changes can already be detected, albeit in a population of patients rather than the individual, with routine MRI scans. Drugs impact upon plasticity: Drugs impact upon CNS structure.
A more basic question goes back to the very roots of modern psychiatry. The question is whether, for some, the neuronal networks are destined to be unwell from the outset (endogenous psychiatric illness), or if, for others, adverse experiences during development cause the network to wire-up pathologically (exogenous psychiatric illness). Then again, there is the third position, in which the choreography between the neuronal hardware and the external environment determines who will succumb to psychiatric syndromes. Whatever the proximal cause(s), endogenous or exogenous, major psychiatric illness appears to stem from abnormal connectivity within neuronal networks.