Synaptic integration of newly generated neurons in rat dissociated hippocampal cultures

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In the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus new neurons are born from precursor cells throughout development and into adulthood. These newborn neurons hold significant potential for self-repair of brain damage caused by neurodegenerative disease. However, the mechanism by which newborn neurons integrate into the brain is not understood due to a lack of knowledge of the molecular and functional characteristics of the synapses formed by newborn neurons. Here we report that dissociated hippocampal cultures continue to produce new granule cells in vitro that fire action potentials and become synaptically integrated into the existing network of mature hippocampal neurons. Quantification of the expression of synaptic proteins at newborn and mature granule cell synapses revealed synapse development onto newborn neurons occurs sequentially with initial synaptic contacts evident from 6 days after cell birth. These data also showed that the dendrites of newborn neurons have a high density of Piccolo and Bassoon puncta on them and therefore have a high potential to be integrated into the neuronal network through new synaptic connections. Electrophysiological recordings from newborn neurons reveal these synapses are functional within 10 days of cell birth. GABAergic input synapses were found to mature faster in newborn neurons than glutamatergic synapses where sequential recruitment of postsynaptic glutamate receptors occurred. Group I metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluR1/5) were present at higher levels compared with ionotropic glutamate receptors (NMDA and AMPA receptors), suggesting that metabotropic and ionotropic receptors play differential roles at glutamatergic synapses in the integration and the maturation of newborn neurons. These data show that dissociated hippocampal cultures can provide a useful model system in which to study the integration of newborn neurons into existing neuronal circuits to increase our understanding of how the function of newborn neuron synapses could contribute to restoring damaged neuronal networks.

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