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Cell Death Differ. 2011 Jan;18(1):99-108. doi: 10.1038/cdd.2010.79. Epub 2010 Jun 25.

Sustained calcium signalling and caspase-3 activation involve NMDA receptors in thymocytes in contact with dendritic cells.

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Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Département des Sciences du Vivant, Institut National des Sciences Biologiques, Unité Mixte de Recherche UMR 8162, Institut Paris Sud Cytokines, Le Plessis Robinson, Ile de France F-92350, France.


L-glutamate, the major excitatory neurotransmitter, also has a role in non-neuronal tissues and modulates immune responses. Whether NMDA receptor (NMDAR) signalling is involved in T-cell development is unknown. In this study, we show that mouse thymocytes expressed an array of glutamate receptors, including NMDARs subunits. Sustained calcium (Ca(2+)) signals and caspase-3 activation in thymocytes were induced by interaction with antigen-pulsed dendritic cells (DCs) and were inhibited by NMDAR antagonists MK801 and memantine. NMDARs were transiently activated, triggered the sustained Ca(2+) signal and were corecruited with the PDZ-domain adaptor postsynaptic density (PSD)-95 to thymocyte-DC contact zones. Although T-cell receptor (TCR) activation was sufficient for relocalization of NMDAR and PSD-95 at the contact zone, NMDAR could be activated only in a synaptic context. In these T-DC contacts, thymocyte activation occurred in the absence of exogenous glutamate, indicating that DCs could be a physiological source of glutamate. DCs expressed glutamate, glutamate-specific vesicular glutamate transporters and were capable of fast glutamate release through a Ca(2+)-dependent mechanism. We suggest that glutamate released by DCs could elicit focal responses through NMDAR-signalling in T cells undergoing apoptosis. Thus, synapses between T and DCs could provide a functional platform for coupling TCR activation and NMDAR signalling, which might reflect on T-cell development and modulation of the immune response.

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