Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

John O'Brien

Committee Member

Carmen W. Dessauer

Committee Member

Stephen C. Massey

Committee Member

Stephen L. Mills

Committee Member

Daniel S. Wagner


Gap junctions between neurons form the structural substrate for electrical synapses. Connexin 36 (Cx36, and its non-mammalian ortholog connexin 35) is the major neuronal gap junction protein in the central nervous system (CNS), and contributes to several important neuronal functions including neuronal synchronization, signal averaging, network oscillations, and motor learning. Connexin 36 is strongly expressed in the retina, where it is an obligatory component of the high-sensitivity rod photoreceptor pathway. A fundamental requirement of the retina is to adapt to broadly varying inputs in order to maintain a dynamic range of signaling output. Modulation of the strength of electrical coupling between networks of retinal neurons, including the Cx36-coupled AII amacrine cell in the primary rod circuit, is a hallmark of retinal luminance adaptation. However, very little is known about the mechanisms regulating dynamic modulation of Cx36-mediated coupling. The primary goal of this work was to understand how cellular signaling mechanisms regulate coupling through Cx36 gap junctions. We began by developing and characterizing phospho-specific antibodies against key regulatory phosphorylation sites on Cx36. Using these tools we showed that phosphorylation of Cx35 in fish models varies with light adaptation state, and is modulated by acute changes in background illumination. We next turned our focus to the well-studied and readily identifiable AII amacrine cell in mammalian retina. Using this model we showed that increased phosphorylation of Cx36 is directly related to increased coupling through these gap junctions, and that the dopamine-stimulated uncoupling of the AII network is mediated by dephosphorylation of Cx36 via protein kinase A-stimulated protein phosphatase 2A activity. We then showed that increased phosphorylation of Cx36 on the AII amacrine network is driven by depolarization of presynaptic ON-type bipolar cells as well as background light increments. This increase in phosphorylation is mediated by activation of extrasynaptic NMDA receptors associated with Cx36 gap junctions on AII amacrine cells and by Ca2+-calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II activation. Finally, these studies indicated that coupling is regulated locally at individual gap junction plaques. This work provides a framework for future study of regulation of Cx36-mediated coupling, in which increased phosphorylation of Cx36 indicates increased neuronal coupling.


retina, gap junction, connexin 36, phosphorylation, AII amacrine cell, dopamine, NMDA, light adaptation, electrical synapse, plasticity



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