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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

A quantitative method to assess extrasynaptic NMDA receptor function in the protective effect of synaptic activity against neurotoxicity

C Peter Bengtson, Oliver Dick and Hilmar Bading*

Author Affiliations

Department of Neurobiology, Interdisciplinary Centre for Neurosciences (IZN), University of Heidelberg, 69120 Heidelberg, Germany

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BMC Neuroscience 2008, 9:11  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-9-11

Published: 24 January 2008



Extrasynaptic NMDA receptors couple to a CREB shut-off pathway and cause cell death, whereas synaptic NMDA receptors and nuclear calcium signaling promote CREB-mediated transcription and neuronal survival. The distribution of NMDA receptors (synaptic versus extrasynaptic) may be an important parameter that determines the susceptibility of neurons to toxic insults. Changes in receptor surface expression towards more extrasynaptic NMDA receptors may lead to neurodegeneration, whereas a reduction of extrasynaptic NMDA receptors may render neurons more resistant to death. A quantitative assessment of extrasynaptic NMDA receptors in individual neurons is needed in order to investigate the role of NMDA receptor distribution in neuronal survival and death.


Here we refined and verified a protocol previously used to isolate the effects of extrasynaptic NMDA receptors using the NMDA receptor open channel blocker, MK-801. Using this method we investigated the possibility that the known neuroprotective shield built up in hippocampal neurons after a period of action potential bursting and stimulation of synaptic NMDA receptors is due to signal-induced trafficking of extrasynaptic NMDA receptors or a reduction in extrasynaptic NMDA receptor function. We found that extrasynaptic NMDA receptor-mediated calcium responses and whole cell currents recorded under voltage clamp were surprisingly invariable and did not change even after prolonged (16 to 24 hours) periods of bursting and synaptic NMDA receptor activation. Averaging a large number of calcium imaging traces yielded a small (6%) reduction of extrasynaptic NMDA receptor-mediated responses in hippocampal neurons that were pretreated with prolonged bursting.


The slight reduction in extrasynaptic NMDA receptor function following action potential bursting and synaptic NMDA receptor stimulation could contribute to but is unlikely to fully account for activity-dependent neuroprotection. Other factors, in particular calcium signaling to the nucleus and the induction of survival promoting genes are more likely to mediate acquired neuroprotection.