Identification of Signaling Mechanisms Determining the Development of Large Excitatory Synapses in the Lower Auditory System

In the brainstem auditory circuit of mammals and birds, excitatory synapses with extraordinarily large size have evolved, which ensure fast membrane potential signaling mediated by large, multiquantal excitatory postsynaptic currents (EPSCs). The so-called "calyx of Held" synapses are formed by the globular bushy cells (GBCs) in the ventral cochlear nucleus (VCN) onto the contralateral medial nucleus of the trapezoid body (MNTB) neurons. One the other hand, the spherical bushy cells (SBCs) in the VCN project to the lateral superior olive (LSO), where they form small bouton-like synapses. Therefore, the lower auditory brainstem circuits constitute an example of synapse-specificity, in which presynaptic neuron pools are connected through highly specific synapses to their postsynaptic partner neurons. Calyx of Held synapses are formed at postnatal day 2 - 4 in rodents in a target-cell specific manner and prior to the onset of hearing. The molecular signaling pathways which drive the formation of these synapses are unknown. Here we identify bone morphogenetic protein (BMP) signaling as an essential signaling pathway in the development of calyces of Held. Through unbiased genome-wide transcriptome analyses in rats and mice, BMPs were identified as candidates for diffusible signaling molecules which are expressed at a higher level in the MNTB (the target area of calyces of Held), as compared to the LSO. The microarray analysis was validated by quantitative PCR (qPCR) and in-situ hybridisation. A conditional knock-out (KO) of BMP-receptor 1a (BMPR1a) in the lower auditory system, in the genetic background of a conventional KO of BMP-receptor 1b (BMPR1b), was then used to address the role of BMP-receptor signaling for calyx of Held formation in vivo. Genetically knocking out BMPR1a/1b activity in the auditory brainstem led to a drastic deficit at the calyx of Held synapses both morphologically and functionally, as well as to the persistence of multiple innervation of MNTB neurons. This study therefore shows that BMP signaling drives the development of the large calyx of Held synapses. The study offers a possible mechanism for the specificity of a large excitatory synapse formation in the central nervous systems (CNS). In addition, the study shows a novel function of BMP signaling in synaptogenesis in the mammalian CNS.


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