Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Neal Waxham

Committee Member

Andy Bean

Committee Member

Jack Waymire

Committee Member

James Stoops

Committee Member

Pawel Penczek


The development of the brain and its underlying circuitry is dependent on the formation of trillions of chemical synapses, which are highly specialized contacts that regulate the flow of information from one neuron to the next. It is through these synaptic connections that neurons wire together into networks capable of performing specific tasks, and activity-dependent changes in their structural and physiological state is one way that the brain is thought to adapt and store information. At the ultrastructural level, developmental and activity-dependent changes in the size and shape of dendritic spines have been well documented, and it is widely believed that structural changes in spines are a hallmark sign of synapse maturation and alteration of synaptic physiology. While changes in spine structure have been studied extensively, changes in one of its most prominent components, the postsynaptic density (PSD), have largely evaded observation. The PSD is a protein-rich organelle on the cytoplasmic side of the postsynaptic membrane, where it sits in direct opposition to the presynaptic terminal. The PSD functions both to cluster neurotransmitter receptors at the cell surface as well as organize the intracellular signaling molecules responsible for transducing extracellular signals to the postsynaptic cell. Much is known about the chemical composition of the PSD, but the structural arrangement of its molecular components is not well documented. Adding to the difficulty of understanding such a complex mass of protein machinery is the fact that its protein composition is known to change in response to synaptic activity, meaning that its structure is plastic and no two PSDs are identical. Here, immuno-gold labeling and electron tomography of PSDs isolated throughout development was used to track changes in both the structure and molecular composition of the PSD. State-of-the-art cryo-electron tomography was used to study the fine structure of the PSD during development, and provides an unprecedented glimpse into its molecular architecture in an un-fixed, unstained and hydrated state. Through this analysis, large structural and compositional changes are apparent and suggest a model by which the PSD is first assembled as a mesh-like lattice of proteins that function as support for the later recruitment of various PSD components. Spatial analysis of the recruitment of proteins into the PSD demonstrated that its assembly has an underlying order.


postsynaptic density, PSD, cryo, EM, electron microscopy, tomography, CaMKII, synaptogenesis



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