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Annu Rev Neurosci. 1999;22:389-442.

Development of the vertebrate neuromuscular junction.

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Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Missouri 63110, USA.


We describe the formation, maturation, elimination, maintenance, and regeneration of vertebrate neuromuscular junctions (NMJs), the best studied of all synapses. The NMJ forms in a series of steps that involve the exchange of signals among its three cellular components--nerve terminal, muscle fiber, and Schwann cell. Although essentially any motor axon can form NMJs with any muscle fiber, an additional set of cues biases synapse formation in favor of appropriate partners. The NMJ is functional at birth but undergoes numerous alterations postnatally. One step in maturation is the elimination of excess inputs, a competitive process in which the muscle is an intermediary. Once elimination is complete, the NMJ is maintained stably in a dynamic equilibrium that can be perturbed to initiate remodeling. NMJs regenerate following damage to nerve or muscle, but this process differs in fundamental ways from embryonic synaptogenesis. Finally, we consider the extent to which the NMJ is a suitable model for development of neuron-neuron synapses.

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