Thanks to the development of efficient differentiation strategies, human pluripotent stem cells (HPSC) offer the opportunity for modelling neuronal injury and dysfunction in human neurons in vitro. Critically, the effective use of HPSC-derived neural cells in disease-modelling and potentially cell replacement therapies hinges on an understanding of the biology of these cells, specifically their development, subtype specification and responses to neurotoxic signalling mediators. Here, we generated neurons from human embryonic stem cells and characterised the development of vulnerability to glutamate excitotoxicity, a key contributor to neuronal injury in several acute and chronic neurodegenerative disorders. Over two months of differentiation we observed a gradual increase in responsiveness of neurons to glutamate-induced Ca(2+) influx, attributable to NMDA receptor activity. This increase was concomitant with an increase in expression of mRNA encoding NMDA and AMPA receptor subunits. Differentiated neurons were vulnerable to glutamate excitotoxicity in a dose-dependent manner, which was reduced by NMDA receptor antagonists.
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