Synaptic Efficacy Enhanced by Glial Cells in Vitro

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Science  12 Sep 1997:
Vol. 277, Issue 5332, pp. 1684-1687
DOI: 10.1126/science.277.5332.1684

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In the developing nervous system, glial cells guide axons to their target areas, but it is unknown whether they help neurons to establish functional synaptic connections. The role of glial cells in synapse formation and function was studied in cultures of purified neurons from the rat central nervous system. In glia-free cultures, retinal ganglion cells formed synapses with normal ultrastructure but displayed little spontaneous synaptic activity and high failure rates in evoked synaptic transmission. In cocultures with neuroglia, the frequency and amplitude of spontaneous postsynaptic currents were potentiated by 70-fold and 5-fold, respectively, and fewer transmission failures occurred. Glial cells increased the action potential–independent quantal release by 12-fold without affecting neuronal survival. Thus, developing neurons in culture form inefficient synapses that require glial signals to become fully functional.

  • * Present address: Synapse Formation and Function Group, Max-Delbrück-Center for Molecular Medicine, Robert-Rössle-Strasse 10, 13122 Berlin-Buch, Germany.

  • To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: fpfrieg{at}

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