Abstract

Contrary to long-held assumptions, recent work indicates that neurons may profoundly change transmitter status during development and maturity. For example, sympathetic neurons, classically regarded as exclusively noradrenergic or cholinergic, can also express putative peptide transmitters such as substance P. This neuronal plasticity is directly related to membrane depolarization and sodium ion influx. The same molecular mechanisms and plastic responses occur in mature as well as developing neurons. Further, contrary to traditional teaching, adult primary sensory neurons may express the catecholaminergic phenotype in vivo. Transmitter plasticity is not restricted to the peripheral nervous system: ongoing studies of the brain nucleus locus ceruleus in culture indicate that specific extracellular factors elicit marked transmitter changes. Consequently, neurotransmitter expression and metabolism are dynamic, changing processes, regulated by a variety of defined factors. Transmitter plasticity adds a newly recognized dimension of flexibility to nervous system function.