The hippocampus is one of only two regions in the adult brain where neurons are generated in significant numbers throughout the lifetime of the animal. Numerous studies have demonstrated that these adult-born neurons are essential for optimal cognitive function with unimpaired memory formation and retrieval. The extent to which adult-born neurons survive through an early "critical period" and become integrated into functional networks has been shown to depend on the richness of stimulation they receive during these formative stages. The dentate gyrus in the hippocampus - home of the adult-born neurons - receives extensive cholinergic innervation, and newly generated neurons in the adult hippocampus express substantial numbers of both major types of neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. Early studies indicated that nicotinic signaling may be important for the development of adult-born neurons: repeated exposure to nicotine impaired their long-term survival. Recent studies with mutant mice lacking either one of the two major nicotinic receptor subtypes demonstrate that receptor loss results in fewer adult-born neurons surviving the critical period and becoming integrated into neural networks. The key nicotinic receptor mediating the largest effects is one that has a high relative permeability to calcium. In view of this feature, it may not be surprising that excessive exposure to nicotine can have detrimental effects on survival and maturation of adult-born neurons in the dentate; these same receptors appear to be key. The results pose serious challenges for therapeutic strategies targeting an individual class of nicotinic receptors for global treatment in the recipient.
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