Reexamining the Role of Dendrites in Neuronal Function

Dr. Rafael Yuste, director of the NTC at Columbia University, Dr. Jayeeta Basu at NYU, Dr. Idan Segev at Hebrew University, Dr. Michael Lin at Stanford University, Dr. Elly Nevidi at MIT, and Dr. Jeff Lichtman at Harvard University, are embarking on a collaborative quest to understand the role of dendrites. This “Dendrite Consortium” will challenge the canonical view that synapses are the functional unit of the neuron and postulate that the dendritic branches are the functional unites. In this emerging new modus operandi, dendrites are not just passive integrators, but rather multi-site critical nonlinear decision points, endowing neurons with increased computational power. Their work will be supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and its new Collaborative Opportunities for Multidisciplinary, Bold, and Innovative Neuroscience (COMBINE) program. This program enables multidisciplinary research teams to pursue critically important research goals that could not be met by individual or parallel efforts.

How individual neurons work is at the core of neuroscience. The standard textbook model of a neuron is one where dendrites merely serve as passive recipients of excitatory and inhibitory synaptic potentials (EPSPs and IPSPs), generated at spines and dendritic shafts and integrated at the axonal initial segment where, if a voltage threshold is attained, an action potential output is generated. However, dendrites are not passive elements but can generate local dendritic spikes, whose phenomenology and function is poorly understood. Dendritic electrogenesis is found in many cell types and could lead to encoding of selective stimulus features. The possibility that dendritic branches act as independent integrators, rather than an oddity, could actually represent a fundamental revision of the model of the neuron. The “Dendrite Consortium’s” work will elucidate the principles underlying the function of dendrites in pyramidal neurons and generate a series of complete morphological, connectivity, functional and computational datasets that could be used as “Rosetta Stones” by the field for futures studies of neurons in both normal and pathological states. You can learn more about their project here.

Through the NTC, the “Dendrite Consortium” has already hosted a Neuronal Integration: from Circuits to Dendrites symposium, generously sponsored by the Chen Institute and supported by the COMBINE program.

This summer, 2024, the “Dendrite Consortium” aims to mentor 1-2 undergraduate researchers at Columbia for a 10 week program. Those interested in applying can do so here.