Dendritic trafficking faces physiologically critical speed-precision tradeoffs

Alex H. Williams, Cian O’Donnell, Terrence J. Sejnowski, Timothy O’Leary

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Nervous system function requires intracellular transport of channels, receptors, mRNAs, and other cargo throughout complex neuronal morphologies. Local signals such as synaptic input can regulate cargo trafficking, motivating the leading conceptual model of neuron-wide transport, sometimes called the ‘sushi-belt model’ (Doyle and Kiebler, 2011). Current theories and experiments are based on this model, yet its predictions are not rigorously understood. We formalized the sushi belt model mathematically, and show that it can achieve arbitrarily complex spatial distributions of cargo in reconstructed morphologies. However, the model also predicts an unavoidable, morphology dependent tradeoff between speed, precision and metabolic efficiency of cargo transport. With experimental estimates of trafficking kinetics, the model predicts delays of many hours or days for modestly accurate and efficient cargo delivery throughout a dendritic tree. These findings challenge current understanding of the efficacy of nucleus-to-synapse trafficking and may explain the prevalence of local biosynthesis in neurons.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere20556
Issue numberDECEMBER2016
StatePublished - Dec 30 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology


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