Making of a synapse: Recurrent roles of drebrin a at excitatory synapses throughout life

Chiye Aoki, Ang D. Sherpa

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Mature excitatory synapses are composed of more than 1500 proteins postsynaptically and hundreds more that operate presynaptically. Among them, drebrin is an F-actin-binding protein that increases noticeably during juvenile synaptogenesis. Electron microscopic analysis reveals that drebrin is highly enriched specifically on the postsynaptic side of excitatory synapses. Since dendritic spines are structures specialized for excitatory synaptic transmission, the function of drebrin was probed by analyzing the ultrastructural characteristics of dendritic spines of animals with genetic deletion of drebrin A (DAKO), the adult isoform of drebrin. Electron microscopic analyses revealed that these brains are surprisingly intact, in that axo-spinous synaptic junctions are well-formed and not significantly altered in number. This normal ultrastructure may be because drebrin E, the alternate embryonic isoform, compensates for the genetic deletion of drebrin A. However, DAKO results in the loss of homeostatic plasticity of N-methyl-d-aspartate receptors (NMDARs). The NMDAR activation-dependent trafficking of the NR2A subunit-containing NMDARs from dendritic shafts into spine head cytoplasm is greatly diminished within brains of DAKO. Conversely, within brains of wild-type rodents, spines respond to NMDAR blockade with influx of F-actin, drebrin A, and NR2A subunits of NMDARs. These observations indicate that drebrin A facilitates the trafficking of NMDAR cargos in an F-actin-dependent manner to mediate homeostatic plasticity. Analysis of the brains of transgenic mice used as models of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) reveals that the loss of drebrin from dendritic spines predates the emergence of synaptic dysfunction and cognitive impairment, suggesting that this form of homeostatic plasticity contributes toward cognition. Two studies suggest that the nature of drebrin’s interaction with NMDARs is dependent on the receptor’s subunit composition. Drebrin A can be found co-clustering with NR2B-containing NMDARs at the plasma membrane, while NR2A-containing NMDARs co-traffic into the spine cytoplasm but do not co-cluster at the plasma membrane. Most recently, we encountered a physiological condition that supports this idea. When adolescent female rats are reared under a condition of restricted food access and ad libitum wheel access, they paradoxically become excessive runners, choosing to run, even during the limited hours of food availability. This behavioral pattern is termed activity-based anorexia (ABA) and has served as an animal model for anorexia nervosa. Those animals that exhibit the greatest ABA vulnerability, in that they lose the most amount of body weight and run with greatest exuberance to the point of risking their lives, exhibit the highest levels of NR2B-NMDARs and drebrin at the postsynaptic membrane of hippocampal pyramidal neurons. Those animals that exhibit the greatest resilience to ABA, in that they run minimally under such condition, thereby losing minimal amount of weight, exhibit the highest level of NR2A-NMDARs in the spine cytoplasm and lowest levels of drebrin at the postsynaptic membrane. This pattern suggests that drebrin has dual roles: retention of NR2A-NMDARs in the reserve pool and trafficking of NR2B-NMDARs to the postsynaptic membrane, ultimately contributing to an individual’s reactivity to stress. Altogether, these observations indicate that drebrin is a protein that is important for synaptic plasticity and deserves the attention of neuroscientists studying the neurobiological basis of cognition and stress reactivity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationAdvances in Experimental Medicine and Biology
PublisherSpringer New York LLC
Number of pages21
StatePublished - 2017

Publication series

NameAdvances in Experimental Medicine and Biology
ISSN (Print)0065-2598
ISSN (Electronic)2214-8019


  • Adolescent
  • Electron microscopic immunocytochemistry
  • Hippocampus
  • Homeostatic plasticity
  • Juvenile
  • NMDA receptor
  • PSD
  • Reserve pool
  • Trafficking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


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