Epigenetics and memory

Epigenetic modification is a powerful mechanism for the induction, the expression and persistence of long-term memory.

For long-term memory, we need to consider diverse cellular processes. These occur in neurons from different brain regions (in particular hippocampus, cortex, amygdala) during memory consolidation and recall. For instance, long-term changes in kinase expression in the proteome, changes in receptor subunit composition and localization at synaptic/dendritic membranes, epigenetic modifications of chromatin such as DNA methylation and histone methylation in the nucleus, and the posttranslational modifications of histones, including phosphorylation and acetylation, all these play a role. Histone acetylation is of particular interest because a number of known medications exist, which function as histone deacetylase inhibitors (HDACs), i.e. have a potential to increase DNA transcription and memory (more on this in a later post).

Epigenetic changes are important because they define the internal conditions for plasticity for the individual neuron. They underlie for instance, kinase or phosphatase-mediated (de)activations of enzymatic proteins and therefore influence the probability of membrane proteins to become altered by synaptic activation.

Among epigenetic changes, DNA methylation typically acts to alter, often to repress, DNA transcription at cytosine, or CpG islands in vertebrates. DNA methylation is mediated by enzymes such as Tet3, which catalyses an important step in the demethylation of DNA. In dentate gyrus of live rats, it was shown that the expression of Tet3 is greatly increased by LTP – synaptically induced memorization – , suggesting that certain DNA stretches were demethylated [5], and presumably activated. During induction of LTP by high frequency electrical stimulation, DNA methylation is changed specifically for certain genes known for their role in neural plasticity [1]. The expression of neural plasticity genes is widely correlated with the methylation status of the corresponding DNA .

So there is interesting evidence for filtering the induction of plasticity via the epigenetic landscape and modifiers of gene expression, such as HDACs. Substances which act as histone deacetylase inhibitors (HDACs) increase histone acetylation. An interesting result from research on fear suggests that HDACs increase some DNA transcription, and enhance specifically fear extinction memories [2], [3],[4]. 

Ion channel expression is not regulated by spiking behavior

An important topic to understand intrinsic excitability is the distribution and activation of ion channels. In this respect the co-regulations between ion channels are of significant interest. MacLean et al. (2003) could show that overexpression of an A-type potassium channel by shal-RNA-injection in neurons of the stomatogastric ganglion of the lobster is compensated by upregulation of Ih such that the spiking behavior remained unaltered.

A non functional shal-mutant whose overexpression did not affect spiking had the same effect, which shows that the regulation does not happen at the site of the membrane, by measuring the spiking behavior. In this case, Ih was upregulated, even though IA activity was unaltered, and spiking behavior was increased. (This is in contrast to e.g. O’Leary et al., 2013, who assume homeostatic regulation of ion channel expression at the membrane, by spiking behavior.)

In drosophila-motoneurons the expression of shal and shaker – both responsible for IA – is reciprocally coupled. If one is reduced, the other is upregulated to a constant level of IA activity at the membrane. Other ion channels, like (INAp and IM) are again antagonistic, which means they correlate positively: if one is reduced, the other is reduced as well to achieve the same level of effect (Golowasch2014). There are a number of publications which have all documented similar effects, e.g. (MacLean et al., 2005, Schulz et al., 2007; Tobin et al., 2009; O’Leary et al., 2013).

We must assume that the expression level of ion channels is regulated and sensed inside the cell and that the levels of genes for different ion channels are coupled – by genetic regulation or on the level of RNA regulation.

To summarize: When there is high IA expression, Ih is also upregulated. When one gene responsible for IA is suppressed, the other gene is more highly expressed, to achieve the same level of IA expression. When (INap), a permanent sodium channel, is reduced, (IM), a potassium channel, is also reduced.

It is important to note that these ion channels may compensate for each other in terms of overall spiking behavior, but they have subtly different properties of activation, e.g. by the pattern of spiking or by neuromodulation. For instance, if cell A reduces ion channel currents like INap and IM, compensating to achieve the same spiking behavior, once we apply neuromodulation to muscarinic receptors on A, this will affect IM, but not INap. The behavior of cell A, crudely the same, is now altered under certain conditions.

To model this – other than by a full internal cell model – requires internal state variables which guide ion channel expression, and therefore regulate intrinsic excitability. These variables would model ion channel proteins and their respective interaction, and in this way guarantee acceptable spiking behavior of the cell. This could lead to the idea of an internal module which sets the parameters necessary for the neuron to function. Such an internal module that self-organizes its state variables according to specified objective functions could greatly simplify systems design. Instead of tuning systems parameters by outside methods – which is necessary for ion-channel based models – each neuronal unit itself would be responsible for its ion channels and be able to self-tune them separately from the whole system.

Linked to the idea of internal state variables is the idea of internal memory, which I have referred to several times in this blog. If I have an internal module of co-regulated variables, which set external parameters for each unit, then this module may serve as a latent memory for variables which are not expressed at the membrane at the present time (s. Er81). The time course of expression and activation at the membrane and of internal co-regulation need not be the same. This offers an opportunity for memory inside the cell, separated from information processing within a network of neurons.

Egocentric representations for general input

The individual neuron’s state need not be determined only by the inputs received.

(a). It may additionally be seeded with a probability for adaptation that is distributed wrt the graph properties of the neuron (like betweenness centrality, choke points etc.), as well as the neuron’s current intrinsic excitability (IE) (which are related). This seeded probability would correspond to a sensitivity of the neuron to the representation that is produced by the subnetwork. The input representation is transformed by the properties of the subnetwork.

(b). Another way to influence neurons independent of their input is to link them together. This can be done by simulating of neuromodulators (NMs) which influence adaptivity for a subset of neurons within the network. There are then neurons which are linked together and increase or turn on their adaptivity because they share the same NM receptors. Different sets of neurons can become activated and increase their adaptivity, whenever a sufficient level of a NM is reached. An additional learning task is then to identify suitable sets of neurons. For instance, neurons may encode aspects of the input representation that result from additional, i.e. attentional, signals co-occuring with the input.

(c). Finally, both E and I neurons are known to consist of morphologically and genetically distinct types. This opens up additional ways of creating heterogeneous networks from these neuron types and have distinct adaptation rules for them. Some of the neurons may not even be adaptive, or barely adaptive, while others may be adaptive only once, (write once, read-only), or be capable only of upregulation, until they have received their limit. (This applies to synaptic and intrinsic adaptation). Certain neurons may have to follow the idea of unlimited adaptation in both directions in order to make such models viable.

Similar variants in neuron behavior are known from technical applications of ANNs: hyperparameters that link individual parameters into groups (‘weight sharing’) have been used, terms like ‘bypassing’ mean that some neurons do not adjust, only transmit, and ‘gating’ means that neurons may regulate the extent of transmission of a signal (cf. LSTM, ScardapaneSetal2018). Separately, the model ADAM (or ADAMW) has been proposed which computes adaptive learning rates for each neuron and achieves fast convergence.

A neuron-centric biological network model (‘neuronal automaton’) offers a systematic approach to such differences in adaptation. As suggested, biological neurons have different capacities for adaptation and this may extend to their synaptic connections as well. The model would allow to learn different activation functions and different adaptivity for each neuron, helped by linking neurons into groups and using fixed genetic types in the setup of the network. In each specific case the input is represented by the structural and functional constraints of the network and therefore transformed into an internal, egocentric representation.

Transmission is not Adaptation

Current synaptic plasticity models have one decisive property which may not be biologically adequate, and which has important repercussions on the type of memory and learning algorithms in general that can be implemented: Each processing or transmission event is an adaptive learning event.

In contrast, in biology, there are many pathways that may act as filters from the use of a synapse to the adaptation of its strength. In LTP/LTD, typically 20 minutes are necessary to observe the effects. This requires the activation of intracellular pathways, often co-occurence of a GPCR activation, and even nuclear read-out.

Therefore we have suggested a different model, greatly simplified at first to test its algorithmic properties. We include intrinsic excitability in learning (LTP-IE, LTD-IE). The main innovation is that we separate learning or adaptation from processing or transmission. Transmission events leave traces at synapses and neurons that disappear over time (short-term plasticity), unless they add up over time to unusually high (low) neural activations, something that can be determined by threshold parameters. Only if a neuron engages in a high (low) activation-plasticity event we get long-term plasticity at both neurons and synapses, in a localized way. Such a model is in principle capable of operating in a sandpile fashion. We do not know yet what properties the model may exhibit. Certain hypotheses exist, concerning abstraction and compression of a sequence of related inputs, and the development of an individual knowledge.

Memory and the Volatility of Spines

Memory has a physical presence in the brain, but there are no elements which permanently code for it.

Memory is located – among other places – in dendritic spines. Spines are being increased during learning and they carry stimulus or task-specific information. Ablation of spines destroys this information (Hayashi-Takagi A2015). Astrocytes have filopodia which are also extended and retracted and make contact with neuronal synapses. The presence of memory in the spine fits to a neuron-centric view: Spine protrusion and retraction are guided by cellular programs. A strict causality such that x synaptic inputs cause a new spine is not necessarily true, as a matter of fact highly conditional principles of spine formation or dissolution could hold, where the internal state of the neuron and the neuron’s history matters. The rules for spine formation need not be identical to the rules for synapse formation and weight updating (which depend on at least two neurons making contact).

A spine needs to be there for a synapse to exist (in spiny neurons), but once it is there, clearly not all synapses are alike. They differ in the amount of AMPA presence and integration, and other receptors/ion channels as well. For instance, Sk-channels serve to block off a synapse from further change, and may be regarded as a form of overwrite protection. Therefore, the existence or lack of a spine is the first-order adaptation in a spiny neuron, the second-order adaptation involves the synapses themselves.

However, spines are also subject to high variability, on the order of several hours to a few days. Some elements may have very long persistence, months in the mouse, but they are few. MongilloGetal2017 point out the fragility of the synapse and the dendritic spine in pyramidal neurons and ask what this means for the physical basis of memory. Given what we know about neural networks, for memory to be permanent, is it necessary that the same spines remain? Learning allows to operate with many random elements, but memory has prima facie no need for volatility.

It is most likely that memory is a secondary, ’emergent’ property of volatile and highly adaptive structures. From this perspective it is sufficient to keep the information alive, among the information-carrying units, which will recreate it in some form.

The argument is that the information is redundantly coded. So if part of the coding is missing, the rest still carries enough information to inform the system, which recruits new parts to carry the information. The information is never lost, because not all synapses, spines, neurons are degraded at the same time, and because internal reentrant processing keeps the information alive and recreates new redundant parts at the same time as other parts are lost. It is a dynamic cycling of information. There are difficulties, if synapses are supposed to carry the whole information. The main difficulty is: if all patterns at all times are being stored in synaptic values, without undue interference, and with all the complex processes of memory, forgetting, retrieval, reconsolidation etc., can this be fitted to a situation, where the response to a simple visual stimulus already involves 30-40% of the cortical area where there is processing going on? I have no quantitative model for this. I think the model only works if we use all the multiple, redundant forms of plasticity that the neuron possesses: internal states, intrinsic properties, synaptic and morphological properties, axonal growth, presynaptic plasticity.

What is the most important untested computational prediction in neuroscience?

The Organization for Computational Neuroscience has started a survey, asking people for their submissions, and here is my contribution:

Prediction: The basis for learning and memory exists primarily within the single neuron.

Rationale: (A) Dendrites/axons are adaptive, in particular the expression and contribution of ion channels adapts to use. This also extends to synaptic channels. (B) The decision on transforming a transient calcium signal into a permanent trace lies within the single neuron, within its protein signaling network and DNA readout mechanisms. The neuron’s memory traces are both use-dependent (dependent on shape and size of calcium signals received) and subject to additional internal computations, e.g. involving kinases/phosphatases, early genes, histones etc.

Remote memories are not coded by current synaptic connectivity, but internally by clusters of neurons, which become activated under certain conditions.

Conclusion: Memory research has to focus on the cellular (neuronal) basis of adaptation, synaptic connectivity will be predictable from adequate neuron models.

The statement in italics is extra. I have no papers, no references on that. For the rest, cf.

Scheler G. Regulation of neuromodulator receptor efficacy–implications for whole-neuron and synaptic plasticity. Prog Neurobiol. 2004 Apr;72(6):399-415. PMID: 15177784

Scheler G. Learning intrinsic excitability in medium spiny neurons. F1000Res. 2013 Mar 14 2:88. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.2-88.v2. eCollection 2013. PMID: 25520776

Scheler, G: Logarithmic distributions prove that intrinsic learning is Hebbian. F1000Res. 2017 (August).


Dendritic computation

A new paper  Universal features of dendrites through centripetal branch ordering published: July 3, 2017) shows more or less the opposite of what it cites as common wisdom: „neuronal computation is known to depend on the morphology of dendrites”

Namely, since all dendrites follow general topological principles, it is probably not the dendritic morphology that matters in a functional sense. To make a dendrite functional, i.e. let it participate in adaptive information processing, we have to refer to the ion channels and GPCRs that populate the spines and shafts and shape the generation of action potentials.

Dendritic integration: 60 years of progress. (Stuart GJ, Spruston N.) Nat Neurosci. 2015 Dec;18(12):1713-21. doi: 10.1038/nn.4157. Epub 2015 Nov 25. Review. PMID:26605882.

Plasticity of dendritic function. Magee JC, Johnston D. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2005 Jun;15(3):334-42. Review. PMID:15922583

Gabriele Scheler BMC Neurosci. 2013; 14(Suppl 1): P344. Published online 2013 Jul 8. doi: 10.1186/1471-2202-14-S1-P344. PMCID: PMC3704850

Neuromodulation of circuits with variable parameters: single neurons and small circuits reveal principles of state-dependent and robust neuromodulation. Marder E1, O’Leary T, Shruti S. Annu Rev Neurosci. 2014;37:329-46. doi: 10.1146/annurev-neuro-071013-013958.

Input-dependent vs. Internally guided Memory

 wealth of experimental data supports the idea that synaptic transmission can be potentiated or depressed, depending on neuronal stimulation, and that this change of at the synapse is a long-lasting effect responsible for learning and memory (LTP/LTD paradigm).What is new is to assume that synaptic and neural plasticity also requires conditions which are not input-dependent (i.e. dependent on synaptic stimulation, or even neuromodulatory activation) but instead dependent on the ‚internal state‘ of the pre- or postsynaptic neuron.

Under such a model, for plasticity to happen after stimulation it must meet with a readiness on the part of the cell, the presynapse or the postsynaptic site. We may call this conditional plasticity to emphasize that conditions deriving from the internal state of the neural network must be met in order for plasticity to occur. A neural system with conditional plasticity will have different properties from current neural networks which use unconditional plasticity in response to every stimulation. The known Hebbian neural network problem  of  ‘preservation of the found solution’ should become much easier to solve with conditional plasticity. Not every activation of a synapse leaves a trace. Most instances of synaptic transmission have no effect on memory. Existing synaptic strengths in many cases remain unaltered by transmission (use of the synapse), unless certain conditions are met. Those conditions could be an unusual strength of stimulation of a single neuron, a temporal sequence of (synaptic and neuromodulatory) stimulations that match a conditional pattern, a preconditioned high readiness for plastic change, e.g. by epigenetics.  However, it is an open question whether using conditional plasticity in neural network models will help with the tasks of conceptual abstraction and knowledge representation in general, beyond improved memory stability.

The ‚readiness‘ of the cell for plastic changes is a catch-all term for a very complex internal processing scheme. There is, for instance, the activation state of relevant kinases in protein signalling, such as CAMKII, PKA, PKC, and ERK, the NF-κB family of transcription factors, CREB, BDNF, factors involved in glucocorticoid signaling, c-fos etc., which can all be captured by dynamical models (Refs), but which generate prohibitively complex models with hundreds of species involved and little opportunity for generalization. That is not even sufficient. There are epigenetic effects like histone modification, which play a role in transcription, and which would require a potentially large number of data to be dynamically modeled as well. However it is known that non-specific drugs like HDAC inhibitors, enhancing gene transcription via increasing histone acetylation, improve learning in general.

This underscores the idea that neurons may receive a ‘readiness potential’ or threshold, a numeric value, which indicates the state of the cell as its ability to engage in plasticity events. Plasticity events originate from the membrane, by strong NMDA or L-type channel mediated calcium influx. Observations have shown that pharmacological blockade of L-type VSCCs as well as chelation of calcium in close proximity to the plasma membrane inhibits immediate-early gene induction, i.e. activation of cellular plasticity programs. If we model readiness as a threshold value, the strength of calcium input may be less than or more than this threshold to induce transcription plasticity. If we model readiness as a continuous value, we may integrate values over time to arrive at a potentially more accurate model.

To simplify we could start with a single scalar value of plasticity readiness, specific for each neuron, but dynamically evolving, and explore the theoretical consequences of a neural network with internal state variables. We‘d be free to explore various rules for the dynamic evolution of the internal readiness value.

How can we model neural plasticity?

A conjecture based on findings of plasticity in ion channel expression is that the level of expression of various ion channels reflects a memory of the cell. This means that we will have networks of neurons with slightly varying dendritic ion channel populations, which influence not only their general intrinsic excitability, but very specifically influence synaptic transmission through their position at synapses. Some channels aid with transmission, others block or reduce transmission, a phenomenon which has been studied as short-term facilitation or depression. Furthermore, ion channels at the synapse have an influence on synaptic plasticity, again, supporting or blocking plastic changes at the synapse.

This makes a model of neural plasticity more complex than synaptic input-dependent LTP/LTD. A single neuron would need variables at synaptic positions for AMPA and NMDA but also for the main potassium and calcium channels (K-A, Kir, Sk, HCN, L-Ca). In addition, a single set of intrinsic variables could capture the density of ion channels in dendritic shaft position. These variables would allow to express the neural diversity which is a result of memorization or learning.

Hypothesis: Neural plasticity is not primarily input-dependent, instead it is guided by a neural internal state which reflects network processes of knowledge building.

How would the variables that define a neural network be learned? The intrinsic variables would be set by neuromodulatory activation and the internal state of the neuron. The synaptic variables would be set from synaptic activation, from neuromodulatory activation, and also from an internal state‘. (In addition, the significant spill-over from synaptic activation which reaches other synapses via the dendrite should also be modeled.)

Let us assume that synaptic stimulation and neuromodulatory activation are well understood. What is the internal state‘ of a neuron?

It has been shown that epigenetic modifications are an important factor in memory. These involve methylation changes in DNA and alterations in histones. Their activation is mediated by protein signaling pathways, encompassing kinases like PKA, PKC, CaMKII, MAPK, and other important protein signaling hubs. Long-term neural plasticity and behavioral memory only happen, when the internal conditions are favorable, many reductions or disruptions of internal processes prevent plasticity and behavioral memory. We do not have the data yet to model these processes in detail. But we may use variables for a neuron‘s internal state which is facilitating or inhibiting plasticity. It is an important theoretical question then to understand the impact of internally-guided plasticity on a neural network, one hypothesis is that it helps with conceptual abstraction and knowledge building.

Hypothesis: Only a few neurons in a target area undergo the permanent, lasting changes underlying long-term memory.

Learning events in rodents lead to epigenetic changes in a targeted area, such as amygdala or hippocampus, but it seems as if there are only a few cells, neurons and non-neurons, involved at a time.These changes begin to appear 30 min after a high-frequency stimulation as in dentate gyrus and last 2-5 hours at least. Some have measured the effects 2 weeks after a learning event. Changes are not widespread, as would be expected in distributed memory, instead they are focal, as if only a few cells suffice to store the memory. It is also possible that the changes are strong only in a focal group of neurons, and present, but much weaker in a more distributed group. Focal learning may be seen as a strategy to build more effective knowledge representations, similar to dropout learning techniques which improve feature representation.

What is the basis for neural plasticity?

The current view of LTP/LTD and specifically AMPA-dependent plasticity, which underlies all theoretical work on neural networks, seems exceedingly narrow. It leaves out levels of plasticity that are well known, like epigenetic modifications, or internal protein signaling, in order to come up with a simple model of use-dependent plasticity, the Hebbian principle, or ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’.

It is interesting and important to tackle the complex task of reducing the large number of individual findings on behavioral memory and neural plasticity into a small set of principles that can be used for models of biologically realistic memorization. Such models should offer capabilities beyond machine learning, namely conceptual abstraction, information filtering, building knowledge.

Here is one such observation: Both AMPA receptor placement and dendritic ion channel expression are regulated by similar, overlapping internal protein pathways. These protein pathways are activated by NM receptors and by NMDA and L-type-calcium channel-based calcium influx. We may conjecture that NM receptors and NMDA-based calcium activation together orchestrate neural plasticity via e.g. the calcium/CaMKII route, and the cAMP/PKA/ERK route, and that these pathways are acting in synergy at the synaptic AMPA sites as well as on the dendritic/synaptic ion channel expression sites.

So what this means is that various forms of intrinsic and synaptic plasticity are guided by the same protein pathways and therefore can be expected to be activated together. Here are specific instances of this synergy:

For instance, strengthening of AMPA could be accompanied by insertion of Sk-channels and reduction of L-type calcium channels, which blocks the synapse from further strengthening (‚overwrite protection‘). Such a mechanism has recently been identified as necessary for the stability and the lasting memorization capabilities of a network. Activation of the cAMP pathway activates Ih (HCN channels) which decreases the intrinsic excitability of the neuron, and allows less synaptic input to be processed. In a way, this kind of activation could be used as a temporal lock to prevent high dendritic excitability after the NM system has become engaged and plasticity in the neuron has started. Vice versa, in the absence of cAMP, dendritic excitability is high and many synaptic inputs are processed by an increase of membrane resistance through a reduction of HCN. Reduction of synaptic activity also reduces dendritic HCN channels. HCN channels may therefore indicate the level of synaptic activation, where more channels limit the parallel processing of synaptic input.