Transient calcium and dopamine increase PKA activity and DARPP-32 phosphorylation

PLoS Comput Biol. 2006 Sep 8;2(9):e119. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.0020119.


Reinforcement learning theorizes that strengthening of synaptic connections in medium spiny neurons of the striatum occurs when glutamatergic input (from cortex) and dopaminergic input (from substantia nigra) are received simultaneously. Subsequent to learning, medium spiny neurons with strengthened synapses are more likely to fire in response to cortical input alone. This synaptic plasticity is produced by phosphorylation of AMPA receptors, caused by phosphorylation of various signalling molecules. A key signalling molecule is the phosphoprotein DARPP-32, highly expressed in striatal medium spiny neurons. DARPP-32 is regulated by several neurotransmitters through a complex network of intracellular signalling pathways involving cAMP (increased through dopamine stimulation) and calcium (increased through glutamate stimulation). Since DARPP-32 controls several kinases and phosphatases involved in striatal synaptic plasticity, understanding the interactions between cAMP and calcium, in particular the effect of transient stimuli on DARPP-32 phosphorylation, has major implications for understanding reinforcement learning. We developed a computer model of the biochemical reaction pathways involved in the phosphorylation of DARPP-32 on Thr34 and Thr75. Ordinary differential equations describing the biochemical reactions were implemented in a single compartment model using the software XPPAUT. Reaction rate constants were obtained from the biochemical literature. The first set of simulations using sustained elevations of dopamine and calcium produced phosphorylation levels of DARPP-32 similar to that measured experimentally, thereby validating the model. The second set of simulations, using the validated model, showed that transient dopamine elevations increased the phosphorylation of Thr34 as expected, but transient calcium elevations also increased the phosphorylation of Thr34, contrary to what is believed. When transient calcium and dopamine stimuli were paired, PKA activation and Thr34 phosphorylation increased compared with dopamine alone. This result, which is robust to variation in model parameters, supports reinforcement learning theories in which activity-dependent long-term synaptic plasticity requires paired glutamate and dopamine inputs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Calcium / metabolism*
  • Computational Biology
  • Computer Simulation*
  • Cyclic AMP-Dependent Protein Kinases / metabolism*
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Dopamine and cAMP-Regulated Phosphoprotein 32 / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Phosphorylation
  • Phosphothreonine / metabolism
  • Protein Binding
  • Second Messenger Systems


  • Dopamine and cAMP-Regulated Phosphoprotein 32
  • Phosphothreonine
  • Cyclic AMP-Dependent Protein Kinases
  • Calcium
  • Dopamine