Neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School (HMS) believe they have taken a decisive step in the quest to understand the biology of long-term memory and find ways to intervene when memory deficits occur with age or disease. In an article, “Bidirectional perisomatic inhibitory plasticity of a Fos neuronal network,” in Nature, they describe a newly identified mechanism that neurons in the adult mouse hippocampus use to regulate signals they receive from other neurons, in a process that appears critical for memory consolidation and recall.

The study was led by Lynn Yap, HMS graduate student in neurobiology, and Michael Greenberg, PhD, the HMS Nathan Marsh Pusey professor of neurobiology, chair of neurobiology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS, and study corresponding author.

“Behavioral experiences activate the FOS transcription factor in sparse populations of neurons that are critical for encoding and recalling specific events. However, there is limited understanding of the mechanisms by which experience drives circuit reorganization to establish a network of Fos-activated cells. It is also not known whether FOS is required in this process beyond serving as a marker of recent neural activity and, if so, which of its many gene targets underlie circuit reorganization,” the investigators wrote.

“Here we demonstrate that when mice engage in spatial exploration of novel environments, perisomatic inhibition of Fos-activated hippocampal CA1 pyramidal neurons by parvalbumin-expressing interneurons is enhanced, whereas perisomatic inhibition by cholecystokinin-expressing interneurons is weakened. This bidirectional modulation of inhibition is abolished when the function of the FOS transcription factor complex is disrupted. Single-cell RNA-sequencing, ribosome-associated mRNA profiling, and chromatin analyses, combined with electrophysiology, reveal that FOS activates the transcription of Scg2, a gene that encodes multiple distinct neuropeptides, to coordinate these changes in inhibition.

“As parvalbumin- and cholecystokinin-expressing interneurons mediate distinct features of pyramidal cell activity, the SCG2-dependent reorganization of inhibitory synaptic input might be predicted to affect network function in vivo. Consistent with this prediction, hippocampal gamma rhythms and pyramidal cell coupling to theta phase are significantly altered in the absence of Scg2. These findings reveal an instructive role for FOS and SCG2 in establishing a network of Fos-activated neurons via the rewiring of local inhibition to form a selectively modulated state. The opposing plasticity mechanisms acting on distinct inhibitory pathways may support the consolidation of memories over time.”

“Memory is essential to all aspects of human existence. The question of how we encode memories that last a lifetime is a fundamental one, and our study gets to the very heart of this phenomenon,” said Greenberg.

The researchers observed that new experiences activate sparse populations of neurons in the hippocampus that express two genes, Fos and Scg2. These genes allow neurons to fine-tune inputs from so-called inhibitory interneurons, cells that dampen neuronal excitation. In this way, small groups of disparate neurons may form persistent networks with coordinated activity in response to an experience.

“This mechanism likely allows neurons to better talk to each other so that the next time a memory needs to be recalled, the neurons fire more synchronously,” Yap explained. “We think coincident activation of this Fos-mediated circuit is potentially a necessary feature for memory consolidation, for example, during sleep, and also memory recall in the brain.”

Circuit orchestration

In order to form memories, the brain must somehow wire an experience into neurons so that when these neurons are reactivated, the initial experience can be recalled. In their study, Greenberg, Yap, and team set out to explore this process by looking at the gene Fos.

First described in neuronal cells by Greenberg and colleagues in 1986, Fos is expressed within minutes after a neuron is activated. Scientists have taken advantage of this property, using Fos as a marker of recent neuronal activity to identify brain cells that regulate thirst, torpor, and many other behaviors.

Scientists hypothesized that Fos might play a critical role in learning and memory, but for decades, the precise function of the gene has remained a mystery.

To investigate, the researchers exposed mice to new environments and looked at pyramidal neurons, the principal cells of the hippocampus. They found that relatively sparse populations of neurons expressed Fos after exposure to a new experience. Next, they prevented these neurons from expressing Fos, using a virus-based tool delivered to a specific area of the hippocampus, which left other cells unaffected.

Mice that had Fos blocked in this manner showed significant memory deficits when assessed in a maze that required them to recall spatial details, indicating that the gene plays a critical role in memory formation.

The researchers studied the differences between neurons that expressed Fos and those that did not. Using optogenetics to turn inputs from different nearby neurons on or off, they discovered that the activity of Fos-expressing neurons was most strongly affected by two types of interneurons.

Neurons expressing Fos were found to receive increased activity-dampening, or inhibitory, signals from one distinct type of interneuron and decreased inhibitory signals from another type. These signaling patterns disappeared in neurons with blocked Fos expression.

“What’s critical about these interneurons is that they can regulate when and how much individual Fos-activated neurons fire, and also when they fire relative to other neurons in the circuit,” Yap said. “We think that at long last we have a handle on how Fos may in fact support memory processes, specifically by orchestrating this type of circuit plasticity in the hippocampus.”

The researchers further probed the function of Fos, which codes for a transcription factor protein that regulates other genes. They used single-cell sequencing and additional genomic screens to identify genes activated by Fos and found that one gene in particular, Scg2, played a critical role in regulating inhibitory signals.

In mice with experimentally silenced Scg2, Fos-activated neurons in the hippocampus displayed a defect in signaling from both types of interneurons. These mice also had defects in theta and gamma rhythms, brain properties thought to be critical features of learning and memory.

Previous studies had shown that Scg2 codes for a neuropeptide protein that can be cleaved into four distinct forms, which are then secreted. In the current study, Yap and colleagues discovered that neurons appear to use these neuropeptides to fine-tune inputs they receive from interneurons.

Together, the team’s experiments suggest that after a new experience, a small group of neurons simultaneously express Fos, activating Scg2 and its derived neuropeptides, in order to establish a coordinated network with its activity regulated by interneurons.

“When neurons are activated in the hippocampus after a new experience, they aren’t necessarily linked together in any particular way in advance,” Greenberg said. “But interneurons have very broad axonal arbors, meaning they can connect with and signal to many cells at once. This may be how a sparse group of neurons can be linked together to ultimately encode a memory.”

The study findings represent a possible molecular- and circuit-level mechanism for long-term memory. They shed new light on the fundamental biology of memory formation and have broad implications for diseases of memory dysfunction.

“We’re not quite at the answer yet, but we can now see many of the next steps that need to be taken,” Greenberg said. “If we can better understand this process, we will have new handles on memory and how to intervene when things go wrong, whether in age-related memory loss or neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

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