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.