“The understanding of the role of postsynaptic receptors has changed significantly in recent years”, says Choquet. “When I started working in Bordeaux Neuroscience Institute (INB) in 1997, receptors for neurotransmitters were believed to be stable and rather immobile molecules whose activity and regulation were purely based on phosphorylation and structural modification. However, my earlier experience of cell biology made me wonder why the dynamics of neuronal receptors should be any less complex than those of other cell components.” Various studies then proved that receptors are not firmly anchored in the membrane, but move in permanent exchange processes by endo- and exocytosis.
Some years later, the team of Choquet was able to show that the receptors also move in the plane of the cell membrane by lateral diffusion and travel relatively long distances within the synapse. In the last few years the Laboratory ‘Cellular Physiology of the Synapse‘ has been in close cooperation with the physics group of Brahim Lounis at the University of Bordeaux 1 to start characterizing this mobility and examining the way it is regulated. In doing so, they made an amazing discovery for the knowledge of the time: The movements of the receptors are regulated by the neuron activity which, in turn, is directly connected with learning and memory.
Today, it is known that receptors move very rapidly and that this mobility plays an essential role in the signal transmission between neurons. In fact the mobility of receptors controls the reliability of neuronal transmission. “We have revealed that a minor modification of the mobility has a major impact on high frequency transmission. In addition this mobility enables the replacement of desensitized receptors by naïve receptors within a few milliseconds,” Choquet states. This reduces synaptic depression and allows the neuron to transmit information at a higher frequency. These results have radically changed the understanding of neuronal physiology. “Besides the electrophysiological techniques, the light microscopic techniques have played a decisive role,” Choquet explains. “They have literally shed new light on signal transmission functionality and synaptic plasticity.”
Fig. 1: Fluorescence image of a rat neuron labelled with three colors: a presynaptic marker (blue), a postsynaptic marker (red), and a glutamate receptor (green). The white color at the tip of the dendritic spines indicates an accumulation of receptors. © CNRS Photothèque / Magali Mondin, Daniel Choquet, Laboratory: UMR5091 – Physiologie cellulaire de la synapse (PCS) – Bordeaux.
Currently, the team of Choquet is consolidating this knowledge by pursuing two different lines of research. “We are extending our experiments, which have concentrated up to now on cell cultures and brain sections, to include ex vivo investigations and even studies of living organisms”, explains Choquet. “Only then can we gain a better understanding of how learning and memory are actually influenced by the regulation of receptor movements. On the other hand, we intend to research receptor mobility within the synapse on a nanometer scale down to the smallest detail in order to find out, for example, how scaffold proteins are involved in the regulation of receptor mobility. Our working hypothesis is: different information speeds and regulations are directly related to learning and memory.”
The group’s work has quite a relevance for the research of neuronal diseases. “Today, we assume that changes or malfunctions at synapses play a definite role in neuronal and psychological disorders. That’s why not only neurodegenerative diseases, but also epilepsy or autism are also called synaptopathies. Of course, our basic molecular research of the animal model is still far from being clinically relevant, but our work is already linked to that of the colleagues in pathology.” For instance, they have begun, using animal models, to examine the defects in receptor trafficking that are observed in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. A whole department of the INB is occupied with neurodegenerative diseases.
Choquet considers heading the BIC an added advantage for his research. “In Bordeaux, I had the dual function as head of a research group and Head of the Imaging Facility right from the beginning. I have taken care to make the imaging tools we develop for our own experiments available to the entire community", he says. "Since then, the facility has steadily grown – like my research group. In its present size and function as core facility, the BIC has evolved from the fusion of the light microscopy (