N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors (NMDARs) are known to regulate axonal refinement and dendritic branching. However, because NMDARs are abundantly present as tri-heteromers (e.g., NR1/NR2A/NR2B) during development, the precise role of the individual subunits NR2A and NR2B in these processes has not been elucidated. Ventral spinal cord neurons (VSCNs) provide a unique opportunity to address this problem, because the expression of both NR2A and NR2B (but not NR1) is downregulated in culture. Exogenous NR2A or NR2B were introduced into these naturally NR2-null neurons at 4 DIV, and electrophysiological recordings at 11 DIV confirmed that synaptic NR1NR2A receptors and NR1NR2B receptors were formed, respectively. Analysis of the dendritic architecture showed that introduction of NR2B, but not NR2A, dramatically increased the number of secondary and tertiary dendritic branches of VSCNs. Whole cell patch-clamp recordings further indicated that the newly formed branches in NR2B-expressing neurons were able to establish functional synapses because the frequency of miniature AMPA-receptor synaptic currents was increased. Using previously described mutants, we also found that disruption of the interaction between NR2B and RasGRF1 dramatically impaired dendritic branch formation in VSCNs. The differential role of the NR2A and NR2B subunits and the requirement for RasGRF1 in regulating branch formation was corroborated in hippocampal cultures. We conclude that the association between NR1NR2B-receptors and RasGRF1 is needed for dendritic branch formation in VSCNs and hippocampal neurons in vitro. The dominated NR2A expression and the limited interactions of this subunit with the signaling protein RasGRF1 may contribute to the restricted dendritic arbor development in the adult CNS.
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