The ability to investigate the electrophysiological properties of individual cells in acute brain tissue led to the discovery that many glial cells have the capacity to respond rapidly to neuronal activity. In particular, a distinct class of neuroglial cells known as NG2 cells, which exhibit many of the properties that have been described for glial subtypes such as complex cells, polydendrocytes, synantocytes and GluR cells, express ionotropic receptors for glutamate and GABA. In both gray and white matter, NG2 cells form direct synaptic junctions with axons, which enable transient activation of these receptors. Electrophysiological analyses have shown that these neuron-glia synapses exhibit all the hallmarks of ‘classical’ neuron-neuron synapses, including rapid activation, quantized responses, facilitation and depression, and presynaptic inhibition. Electron microscopy indicates that axons form morphologically distinct junctions at discrete sites along processes of NG2 cells, suggesting that NG2 cells are an overt target of axonal projections. AMPA receptors expressed by NG2 cells exhibit varying degrees of Ca(2+) permeability, depending on the brain region and stage of development, and in white matter NG2 cells have also been shown to express functional NMDA receptors. Ca(2+) influx through AMPA receptors following repetitive stimulation can trigger long term potentiation of synaptic currents in NG2 cells. The expression of receptors with significant Ca(2+) permeability may increase the susceptibility of NG2 cells to excitotoxic injury. Future studies using transgenic mice in which expression of receptors can be manipulated selectively in NG2 cells have to define the functions of this enigmatic neuron-glia signaling in the normal and diseased CNS.
Rapid signaling between vertebrate neurons occurs primarily at synapses, intercellular junctions where quantal release of neurotransmitter triggers rapid changes in membrane conductance through activation of ionotropic receptors. Glial cells express many of these same ionotropic receptors, yet little is known about how receptors in glial cells become activated in situ. Because synapses were thought to be the sole provenance of neurons, it has been assumed that these receptors must be activated following diffusion of transmitter out of the synaptic cleft, or through nonsynaptic mechanisms such as transporter reversal. Two recent reports show that a ubiquitous class of progenitors that express the proteoglycan NG2 (NG2 cells) engage in rapid signaling with glutamatergic and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)ergic neurons through direct neuron-glia synapses. Quantal release of transmitter from neurons at these sites triggers rapid activation of aminomethylisoxazole propionic acid (AMPA) or GABA(A) receptors in NG2 cells. These currents exhibit properties consistent with direct rather than spillover-mediated transmission, and electron micrographic analyses indicate that nerve terminals containing clusters of synaptic vesicles form discrete junctions with NG2 cell processes. Although activation of AMPA or GABA(A) receptors depolarize NG2 cells, these receptors are more likely to serve as routes for ion flux rather than as current sources for depolarization, because the amplitudes of the synaptic transients are small and the resting membrane potential of NG2 cells is highly negative. The ability of both glutamate and GABA to influence the morphology, physiology, and development of NG2 cells in vitro suggests that this rapid form of signaling may play important roles in adapting the behavior of these cells to the needs of surrounding neurons in vivo.
Oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) express receptors for many neurotransmitters, but the mechanisms responsible for their activation are poorly understood. We have found that quantal release of GABA from interneurons elicits GABA(A) receptor currents with rapid rise times in hippocampal OPCs. These currents did not exhibit properties of spillover transmission or release by transporters, and immunofluorescence and electron microscopy suggest that interneuronal terminals are in direct contact with OPCs, indicating that these GABA currents are generated at direct interneuron-OPC synapses. The reversal potential of OPC GABA(A) currents was -43 mV, and interneuronal firing was correlated with transient depolarizations induced by GABA(A) receptors; however, GABA application induced a transient inhibition of currents mediated by AMPA receptors in OPCs. These results indicate that OPCs are a direct target of interneuronal collaterals and that the GABA-induced Cl(-) flux generated by these events may influence oligodendrocyte development by regulating the efficacy of glutamatergic signaling in OPCs.