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Electrical Activity Alters Language Used By Nerve Cells

e new chemical language being used by the nerves would not be detected if the muscles continued to produce only acetylcholine receptors, Spitzer and Borodinsky also looked for changes in the muscle cells’ transmitter receptors.

They discovered that, unlike in adult muscle, very early in development the muscle cells actually make multiple types of receptors, not just acetylcholine receptors. Remarkably, neurotransmitter receptors on the muscle cells are selected to match the neurotransmitter being produced by the nerve cells when early activity is perturbed.

“Our discovery, that developing muscle cells express several different types of neurotransmitter receptors, is surprising,” said Borodinsky, who is now an assistant professor of physiology at the U.C. Davis School of Medicine. “The vertebrate neuromuscular junction has been very well studied, and it has long been thought that acetylcholine was the only neurotransmitter used there.

“Sometimes people studying development can be misled by knowing how things work in an adult animal,” she added. “You have so much information about the end point that you may not open your eyes to what happens early on.”

The results show that the development of communication between nerves and muscles is flexible. Rather than a genetic program specifying that acetylcholine will be the language of communication, it is one of several languages that nerve cells are capable of using. Similarly, muscle cells have the potential to understand several languages. During development, the level of electrical activity in nerve cells determines which of many possible neurotransmitter languages will be used.

“It may seem wasteful to start with multiple types of receptors, and then eliminate the ones that aren’t needed,” commented Spitzer. “But it provides organisms with the ability to adapt to the environmental conditions in which they are living.”

The researchers are not certa
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