Synapse elimination from the mouse neuromuscular junction in vitro: a non-Hebbian activity-dependent process

J Neurobiol. 1993 Nov;24(11):1517-30. doi: 10.1002/neu.480241106.


The effect of action potentials on elimination of mouse neuromuscular junctions (NMJ) was studied in a three-compartment cell culture preparation. Axons from superior cervical ganglion or ventral spinal cord neurons in two lateral compartments formed multiple neuromuscular junctions with muscle cells in a central compartment. The loss of synapses over a 2-7-day period was determined by serial electrophysiological recording and a functional assay. Electrical stimulation of axons from one side compartment during this period, using 30-Hz bursts of 2-s duration, repeated at 10-s intervals, caused a significant increase in synapse elimination compared to unstimulated cultures (p < 0.001). The extent of homosynaptic and heterosynaptic elimination was comparable, i.e., of the 226 functional synapses of each type studied, 111 (49%) of the synapses that had been stimulated were eliminated, and 87 (39%) of unstimulated synapses on the same muscle cells were eliminated. Also, simultaneous bilateral stimulation caused significantly greater elimination of synapses than unilateral stimulation (p < 0.005). These observations are contrary to the Hebbian hypothesis of synaptic plasticity. A spatial effect of stimulus-induced synapse elimination was also evident following simultaneous bilateral stimulation. Prior to stimulation, most muscle cells were innervated by axons from both side compartments, but after bilateral stimulation, muscle cells were predominantly unilaterally innervated by axons from the closer compartment. These experiments suggest that synapse elimination at the NMJ is an activity-dependent process, but it does not follow Hebbian or anti-Hebbian rules of synaptic plasticity. Rather, elimination is a consequence of postsynaptic activation and a function of location of the muscle cell relative to the neuron. An interaction between spatial and activity-dependent effects on synapse elimination could help produce optimal refinement of synaptic connections during postnatal development.

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Animals
  • Axons / physiology
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Mice
  • Motor Endplate / physiology
  • Muscles / innervation
  • Muscles / ultrastructure
  • Nerve Degeneration / physiology
  • Neuromuscular Junction / physiology*
  • Neuromuscular Junction / ultrastructure
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / physiology
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / ultrastructure
  • Superior Cervical Ganglion / physiology
  • Superior Cervical Ganglion / ultrastructure
  • Synapses / physiology*
  • Synapses / ultrastructure
  • Tetrodotoxin / pharmacology


  • Tetrodotoxin