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Rev Neurosci. 1997 Jan-Mar;8(1):1-12.

Role of neurotrophins in synapse development and plasticity.

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Laboratory of Developmental Neurobiology, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, Bethesda, MD 20892-4480, USA.


Neurotrophic factors are traditionally viewed as secretory proteins that regulate long-term survival and differentiation of neurons. The role of neurotrophic factors in the structural integrity of the nervous system makes them attractive candidates as therapeutic agents for neurodegenerative diseases. However, the fact that expression of many neurotrophic factors in the central nervous system is rapidly enhanced by neuronal activity suggests a new role for these factors in activity-dependent processes, such as synaptic development and plasticity. A series of recent studies has provided strong evidence for this novel function of neurotrophic factors. The neurotrophin family of proteins has been shown to acutely potentiate synaptic transmission at the neuromuscular junction and in the brain. These factors are also involved in the maturation of the neuromuscular synapses and in the development of synapses in the visual system. Gene targeting and physiological experiments demonstrate that brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) plays an important role in long-term potentiation (LTP), a cellular model for learning and memory. These findings have brought together two hotly pursued areas of neuroscience, namely, the function of neurotrophic factors and the mechanisms for synaptic plasticity. Continuous studies in this new field will help understand how synapses develop and function in the brain, and may have significant implications in treating learning disorders in both children and adults.

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