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Neuroscience. 2004;126(1):115-26.

Quantification of synapse formation and maintenance in vivo in the absence of synaptic release.

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Rudolf Magnus Institute for Neurosciences, University of Utrecht Medical Center, Utrecht, The Netherlands.


Outgrowing axons in the developing nervous system secrete neurotransmitters and neuromodulatory substances, which is considered to stimulate synaptogenesis. However, some synapses develop independent of presynaptic secretion. To investigate the role of secretion in synapse formation and maintenance in vivo, we quantified synapses and their morphology in the neocortical marginal zone of munc18-1 deficient mice which lack both evoked and spontaneous secretion [Science 287 (2000) 864]. Histochemical analyses at embryonic day 18 (E18) showed that the overall organization of the neocortex and the number of cells were similar in mutants and controls. Western blot analysis revealed equal concentrations of pre- and post-synaptic marker proteins in mutants and controls and immunocytochemical analyses indicated that these markers were targeted to the neuropil of the synaptic layer in the mutant neocortex. Electron microscopy revealed that at E16 immature synapses had formed both in mutants and controls. These synapses had a similar synapse diameter, active zone length and contained similar amounts of synaptic vesicles, which were immuno-positive for two synaptic vesicle markers. However, these synapses were three times less abundant in the mutant. Two days later, E18, synapses in the controls had more total and docked vesicles, but not in the mutant. Furthermore, synapses were now five times less abundant in the mutant. In both mutant and controls, synapse-like structures were observed with irregular shaped vesicles on both sides of the synaptic cleft. These 'multivesicular structures' were immuno-positive for synaptic vesicle markers and were four times more abundant in the mutant. We conclude that in the absence of presynaptic secretion immature synapses with a normal morphology form, but fewer in number. These secretion-deficient synapses might fail to mature and instead give rise to multivesicular structures. These two observations suggest that secretion of neurotransmitters and neuromodulatory substances is required for synapse maintenance, not for synaptogenesis. Multivesicular structures may develop out of unstable synapses.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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