Glutamate uptake block triggers deadly rhythmic bursting of neonatal rat hypoglossal motoneurons

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In the brain the extracellular concentration of glutamate is controlled by glial transporters that restrict the neurotransmitter action to synaptic sites and avoid excitotoxicity. Impaired transport of glutamate occurs in many cases of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a devastating motoneuron disease. Motoneurons of the brainstem nucleus hypoglossus are among the most vulnerable, giving early symptoms like slurred speech and dysphagia. However, the direct consequences of extracellular glutamate build-up, due to uptake block, on synaptic transmission and survival of hypoglossal motoneurons remain unclear and have been studied using the neonatal rat brainstem slice preparation as a model. Patch clamp recording from hypoglossal motoneurons showed that, in about one-third of these cells, inhibition of glutamate transport with the selective blocker DL-threo-β-benzyloxyaspartate (TBOA; 50 μM) unexpectedly led to the emergence of rhythmic bursting consisting of inward currents of long duration with superimposed fast oscillations and synaptic events. Synaptic inhibition block facilitated bursting. Bursts had a reversal potential near 0 mV, and were blocked by tetrodotoxin, the gap junction blocker carbenoxolone, or antagonists of AMPA, NMDA or mGluR1 glutamate receptors. Intracellular Ca2+ imaging showed bursts as synchronous discharges among motoneurons. Synergy of activation of distinct classes of glutamate receptor plus gap junctions were therefore essential for bursting. Ablating the lateral reticular formation preserved bursting, suggesting independence from propagated network activity within the brainstem. TBOA significantly increased the number of dead motoneurons, an effect prevented by the same agents that suppressed bursting. Bursting thus represents a novel hallmark of motoneuron dysfunction triggered by glutamate uptake block.

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