Since the observation that nitric oxide (NO) can act as an intercellular messenger in the brain, the past 25 years have witnessed the steady accumulation of evidence that it acts pre-synaptically at both glutamatergic and GABAergic synapses to alter release-probability in synaptic plasticity. NO does so by acting on the synaptic machinery involved in transmitter release and, in a coordinated fashion, on vesicular recycling mechanisms. In this review, we examine the body of evidence for NO acting as a retrograde factor at synapses, and the evidence from in vivo and in vitro studies that specifically establish NOS1 (neuronal nitric oxide synthase) as the important isoform of NO synthase in this process. The NOS1 isoform is found at two very different locations and at two different spatial scales both in the cortex and hippocampus. On the one hand it is located diffusely in the cytoplasm of a small population of GABAergic neurons and on the other hand the alpha isoform is located discretely at the post-synaptic density (PSD) in spines of pyramidal cells. The present evidence is that the number of NOS1 molecules that exist at the PSD are so low that a spine can only give rise to modest concentrations of NO and therefore only exert a very local action. The NO receptor guanylate cyclase is located both pre- and post-synaptically and this suggests a role for NO in the coordination of local pre- and post-synaptic function during plasticity at individual synapses. Recent evidence shows that NOS1 is also located post-synaptic to GABAergic synapses and plays a pre-synaptic role in GABAergic plasticity as well as glutamatergic plasticity. Studies on the function of NO in plasticity at the cellular level are corroborated by evidence that NO is also involved in experience-dependent plasticity in the cerebral cortex.
Keywords: LTP (Long Term Potentiation); NOS1; experience-dependent plasticity; guanylate cyclase; synaptic plasticity.