Development of the neuromuscular junction (NMJ) requires secretion of specific isoforms of the proteoglycan agrin by motor neurons. Secreted agrin is widely expressed in the basal lamina of various tissues, whereas a transmembrane form is highly expressed in the brain. Expression in the brain is greatest during the period of synaptogenesis, but remains high in regions of the adult brain that show extensive synaptic plasticity. The well-established role of agrin in NMJ development and its presence in the brain elicited investigations of its possible role in synaptogenesis in the brain. Initial studies on the embryonic brain and neuronal cultures of agrin-null mice did not reveal any defects in synaptogenesis. However, subsequent studies in culture demonstrated inhibition of synaptogenesis by agrin antisense oligonucleotides or agrin siRNA. More recently, a substantial loss of excitatory synapses was found in the brains of transgenic adult mice that lacked agrin expression everywhere but in motor neurons. The mechanisms by which agrin influences synapse formation, maintenance and plasticity may include enhancement of excitatory synaptic signaling, activation of the "muscle-specific" receptor tyrosine kinase (MuSK) and positive regulation of dendritic filopodia. In this article I will review the evidence that agrin regulates synapse development, plasticity and signaling in the brain and discuss the evidence for the proposed mechanisms.
Published by Elsevier Ltd.