The high-resolution electron microscope pictures depicting the inside of the brains of mice may help to study about what happens in our brain everyday. The junctions between nerve cells (synapses) can grow strong and large during the daytime, and can shrink by nearly 20% when we sleep, thereby creating room for growth.
The four-year research project published today in Science offers a direct visual proof of the "synaptic homeostasis hypothesis" (SHY) proposed by Drs. Chiara Cirelli and Giulio Tononi of the Wisconsin Center for Sleep and Consciousness.
This hypothesis holds that sleep is the price we pay for brains that are plastic and able to keep learning new things.
When synapses get stronger and more effective they also become bigger, and conversely they shrink when they weaken. Thus, Cirelli and Tononi reasoned that a direct test of SHY was to determine whether the size of synapses changes between sleep and wake. To do so, they used a method with extremely high spatial resolution called serial scanning 3-D electron microscopy.
The research itself was a massive undertaking, with many research specialists working for four years to photograph, reconstruct, and analyze two areas of cerebral cortex in the mouse brain. They were able to reconstruct 6,920 synapses and measure their size.
The team deliberately did not know whether they were analyzing the brain cells of a well-rested mouse or one that had been awake. When they finally "broke the code" and correlated the measurements with the amount of sleep the mice had during the six to eight hours before the image was taken, they found that a few hours of sleep led on average to an 18 percent decrease in the size of the synapses. These changes occurred in both areas of the cerebral cortex and were proportional to the size of the synapses.
The scaling occurred in about 80 percent of the synapses but spared the largest ones, which may be associated with the most stable memory traces.
"This shows, in unequivocal ultrastructural terms, that the balance of synaptic size and strength is upset by wake and restored by sleep," Cirelli says. "It is remarkable that the vast majority of synapses in the cortex undergo such a large change in size over just a few hours of wake and sleep.
Tononi adds, "Extrapolating from mice to humans, our findings mean that every night trillions of synapses in our cortex could get slimmer by nearly 20 percent."
The study was published today in Science along with research from Dr. Richard Huganir's laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. This study, using biochemical and molecular methods, confirms SHY's prediction that synapses undergo a process of scaling down during sleep, and identifies genes important for this process.