In an article in the March 8 issue of the journal PLoS Computational Biology, physicists Travis Craddock and Jack Tuszynski of the University of Alberta, and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff of the University of Arizona demonstrate a plausible mechanism for encoding synaptic memory in microtubules, major components of the structural cytoskeleton within neurons. Microtubules are cylindrical hexagonal lattice polymers of the protein tubulin, comprising 15 percent of total brain protein. Microtubules define neuronal architecture, regulate synapses, and are suggested to process information via interactive bit-like states of tubulin. But any semblance of a common code connecting microtubules to synaptic activity has been missing. Until now.
The standard experimental model for neuronal memory is long term potentiation (LTP) in which brief pre-synaptic excitation results in prolonged post-synaptic sensitivity. An essential player in LTP is the hexagonal enzyme calcium/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (CaMKII). Upon pre-synaptic excitation, calcium ions entering post-synaptic neurons cause the snowflake-shaped CaMKII to transform, extending sets of 6 leg-like kinase domains above and below a central domain, the activated CaMKII resembling a double-sided insect. Each kinase domain can phosphorylate a substrate, and thus encode one bit of synaptic information. Ordered arrays of bits are termed bytes, and 6 kinase domains on one side of each CaMKII can thus phosphorylate and encode calcium-mediated synaptic inputs as 6-bit bytes. But where is the intra-neuronal substrate for memory encoding by CaMKII phosphorylation? Enter microtubules. Using molecular modeling, Craddock et al reveal a perfect match among spatial dimensions, geometry and electrostatic binding of the insect-like CaMKII, and hexagonal lattices of tubulin proteins in microtubules. They show how CaMKII kinase domains can collectively bind and phosphorylate 6-bit bytes, resulting in hexagonally-based patterns of phosphorylated tubulins in microtubules. Craddock et al calculate enormous information capacity at low energy cost, demonstrate microtubule-associated protein logic gates, and show how patterns of phosphorylated tubulins in microtubules can control neuronal functions by triggering axonal firings, regulating synapses, and traversing scale. Microtubules and CaMKII are ubiquitous in eukaryotic biology, extremely rich in brain neurons, and capable of connecting membrane and cytoskeletal levels of information processing. Decoding and stimulating microtubules could enable therapeutic intervention in a host of pathological processes, for example Alzheimer’s disease in which microtubule disruption plays a key role, and brain injury in which microtubule activities can repair neurons and synapses.
Memory is attributed to strengthened synaptic connections among particular brain neurons, yet synaptic membrane components are transient, whereas memories can endure. This suggests synaptic information is encoded and ‘hard-wired’ elsewhere, e.g. at molecular levels within the post-synaptic neuron. In long-term potentiation (LTP), a cellular and
molecular model for memory, post-synaptic calcium ion (Ca 2+ ) flux
activates the hexagonal Ca 2+ -calmodulin dependent kinase II (CaMKII), a dodacameric holoenzyme containing 2 hexagonal sets of 6 kinase domains. Each kinase domain can either phosphorylate substrate proteins, or not (i.e.
encoding one bit). Thus each set of extended CaMKII kinases can potentially encode synaptic Ca 2+ information via phosphorylation as ordered arrays of binary ‘bits’. Candidate sites for CaMKII phosphorylation-encoded molecular memory include microtubules (MTs), cylindrical organelles whose surfaces represent a regular lattice with a pattern of hexagonal polymers of the protein tubulin. Using molecular mechanics modeling and electrostatic profiling, we find that spatial dimensions and geometry of the extended CaMKII kinase domains precisely match those of MT hexagonal lattices. This suggests sets of six CaMKII kinase domains phosphorylate hexagonal MT lattice neighborhoods collectively, e.g. conveying synaptic information as ordered arrays of six “bits”, and thus “bytes”, with 64 to 5,281 possible bit states per CaMKII-MT byte. Signaling and encoding in MTs and other cytoskeletal structures offer rapid, robust solid-state information processing which may reflect a general code for MT-based memory and information processing within neurons and other eukaryotic cells