A shift in protein S-palmitoylation, with persistence of growth-associated substrates, marks a critical period for synaptic plasticity in developing brain.
In the mammalian cortex, the initial formation of synaptic connections is followed by a prolonged period during which synaptic circuits are functional, but retain an elevated capacity for activity-dependent remodeling and functional plasticity. During this period, synaptic terminals appear fully mature, morphologically and physiologically. We show here, however, that synaptic terminals during this period are distinguished by their simultaneous accumulation of multiple growth-associated proteins at levels characteristic of axonal growth cones, and proteins involved in synaptic transmitter release at levels characteristic of adult synapses. We show further that newly formed synapses undergo a switch in the dynamic S-palmitoylation of proteins early in the critical period, which includes a large and specific decrease in the palmitoylation of GAP-43 and other major substrates characteristic of growth cones. Previous studies have shown that a similar reduction in ongoing palmitoylation of growth cone proteins is sufficient to stop advancing axons in vitro, suggesting that a developmental switch in protein S-palmitoylation serves to disengage the molecular machinery for axon extension in the absence of local triggers for remodeling during the critical period. Only much later does a decline in the availability of major growth cone components mark the molecular maturation of cortical synapses at the close of the critical period.
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