Apoptosis is a form of cell death historically defined by morphological and biochemical changes that occur in the cell body and nucleus. However, in contrast to nonneuronal cells in which apoptosis has been most intensively studied, neurons exhibit elaborate morphologies with synaptic connections often located at sites a great distance from the cell body. Signaling events occurring in synaptic terminals are believed to play important roles in either promoting (e.g., activation of glutamate receptors in postsynaptic spines) or preventing (e.g., activation of neurotrophic factors in presynaptic terminals) neuronal cell death in various physiological and pathological settings. We have found that apoptotic biochemical cascades can be activated locally in synaptic terminals and neurites and have shown that such cascades can result in local functional and morphological alterations and can also propagate to the cell body resulting in neuronal death. Prostate apoptosis response-4 production, caspase activation, loss of plasma membrane phospholipid asymmetry, mitochondrial dysfunction, and production of factors capable of inducing nuclear chromatin condensation and fragmentation can all occur locally in synaptic terminals in response to various stimuli. Activation of receptors for neurotrophic factors (e.g., basic fibroblast growth factor, secreted form of amyloid precursor protein alpha, and activity-dependent neurotrophic factor) and cytokines (e.g., tumor necrosis factor-alpha) in synaptic terminals can exert synaptoprotective actions that either can be transduced locally or may require signals to the nucleus and back. In addition to their roles in synaptic degeneration and neuron death, apoptotic cascades may play roles in synaptic plasticity. For example, we found that caspase activation can lead to proteolysis of certain glutamate receptor subunits and that this action of capases is correlated with reduced calcium responses to glutamate. We propose that apoptotic cascades function in a continuum in which low levels of activation play roles in adaptive responses to "stressors," whereas higher levels of activation mediate synaptic degeneration and cell death.
Copyright 1999 Wiley-Liss, Inc.