Activity-dependent elimination of neuromuscular synapses
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At developing neuromuscular synapses in vertebrates, different motor axon inputs to muscle fibers compete for maintenance of their synapses. Competition results in progressive changes in synaptic structure and strength that lead to the weakening and loss of some inputs, a process that has been called synapse elimination. At the same time, a single input is strengthened and maintained throughout adult life, consistently recruiting muscle fibers to contract even at rapid firing rates. Work over the last decade has led to an understanding of some of the cell biological mechanisms that underlie competition and how these culminate in synapse elimination. We discuss current ideas about how activity modulates neuromuscular synaptic competition, how competition leads to synapse loss, and how these processes are modulated by cell-cell signaling. A common feature of competition at neuromuscular as well as CNS synapses is that temporally correlated activity seems to slow or prevent competition, while uncorrelated activity seems to trigger or enhance competition. Important questions that remain to be addressed include how patterns of motor neuron activity affect synaptic strength, what is the temporal relationship between changes in synaptic strength and structure, and what cellular signals mediate synapse loss. Answers to these questions will expand our understanding of the mechanisms by which activity edits synaptic structure and function, writing permanent changes in neural circuitry.
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