Botulinum neurotoxins (BoNTs) are extremely potent toxins that specifically cleave SNARE proteins in peripheral synapses, preventing neurotransmitter release. Neuronal responses to BoNT intoxication are traditionally studied by quantifying SNARE protein cleavage in vitro or monitoring physiological paralysis in vivo. Consequently, the dynamic effects of intoxication on synaptic behaviors are not well-understood. We have reported that mouse embryonic stem cell-derived neurons (ESNs) are highly sensitive to BoNT based on molecular readouts of intoxication. Here we study the time-dependent changes in synapse- and network-level behaviors following addition of BoNT/A to spontaneously active networks of glutamatergic and GABAergic ESNs. Whole-cell patch-clamp recordings indicated that BoNT/A rapidly blocked synaptic neurotransmission, confirming that ESNs replicate the functional pathophysiology responsible for clinical botulism. Quantitation of spontaneous neurotransmission in pharmacologically isolated synapses revealed accelerated silencing of GABAergic synapses compared to glutamatergic synapses, which was consistent with the selective accumulation of cleaved SNAP-25 at GAD1(+) pre-synaptic terminals at early timepoints. Different latencies of intoxication resulted in complex network responses to BoNT/A addition, involving rapid disinhibition of stochastic firing followed by network silencing. Synaptic activity was found to be highly sensitive to SNAP-25 cleavage, reflecting the functional consequences of the localized cleavage of the small subpopulation of SNAP-25 that is engaged in neurotransmitter release in the nerve terminal. Collectively these findings illustrate that use of synaptic function assays in networked neurons cultures offers a novel and highly sensitive approach for mechanistic studies of toxin:neuron interactions and synaptic responses to BoNT.
Keywords: GABAergic synapse; SNAP-25; botulinum neurotoxin; botulism; glutamatergic synapse; stem cell-derived neurons; synaptic transmission.