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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 May 11;107(19):8836-41. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0906087107. Epub 2010 Apr 26.

Rapid structural alterations of the active zone lead to sustained changes in neurotransmitter release.

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Department of Physiology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada.


The likelihood with which an action potential elicits neurotransmitter release, the release probability (p(r)), is an important component of synaptic strength. Regulatory mechanisms controlling several steps of synaptic vesicle (SV) exocytosis may affect p(r), yet their relative importance in determining p(r) and eliciting temporal changes in neurotransmitter release at individual synapses is largely unknown. We have investigated whether the size of the active zone cytomatrix is a major determinant of p(r) and whether changes in its size lead to corresponding alterations in neurotransmitter release. We have used a fluorescent sensor of SV exocytosis, synaptophysin-pHluorin, to measure p(r) at individual synapses with high accuracy and employed a fluorescently labeled cytomatrix protein, Bassoon, to quantify the amount of active zone cytomatrix present at these synapses. We find that, for synapses made by a visually identified presynaptic neuron, p(r) is indeed strongly correlated with the amount of active zone cytomatrix present at the presynaptic specialization. Intriguingly, active zone cytomatrices are frequently subject to synapse-specific changes in size on a time scale of minutes. These spontaneous alterations in active zone size are associated with corresponding changes in neurotransmitter release. Our results suggest that the size of the active zone cytomatrix has a large influence on the reliability of synaptic transmission. Furthermore, they implicate mechanisms leading to rapid structural alterations at active zones in synapse-specific forms of plasticity.

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