Evidence That the Central Nervous System Can Induce a Modification at the Neuromuscular Junction That Contributes to the Maintenance of a Behavioral Response.
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Neurons within the spinal cord are sensitive to environmental relations and can bring about a behavioral modification without input from the brain. For example, rats that have undergone a thoracic (T2) transection can learn to maintain a hind leg in a flexed position to minimize exposure to a noxious electrical stimulation (shock). Inactivating neurons within the spinal cord with lidocaine, or cutting communication between the spinal cord and the periphery (sciatic transection), eliminates the capacity to learn, which implies that it depends on spinal neurons. Here we show that these manipulations have no effect on the maintenance of the learned response, which implicates a peripheral process. EMG showed that learning augments the muscular response evoked by motoneuron output and that this effect survives a sciatic transection. Quantitative fluorescent imaging revealed that training brings about an increase in the area and intensity of ACh receptor labeling at the neuromuscular junction (NMJ). It is hypothesized that efferent motoneuron output, in conjunction with electrical stimulation of the tibialis anterior muscle, strengthens the connection at the NMJ in a Hebbian manner. Supporting this, paired stimulation of the efferent nerve and tibialis anterior generated an increase in flexion duration and augmented the evoked electrical response without input from the spinal cord. Evidence is presented that glutamatergic signaling contributes to plasticity at the NMJ. Labeling for vesicular glutamate transporter is evident at the motor endplate. Intramuscular application of an NMDAR antagonist blocked the acquisition/maintenance of the learned response and the strengthening of the evoked electrical response.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The neuromuscular junction (NMJ) is designed to faithfully elicit a muscular contraction in response to neural input. From this perspective, encoding environmental relations (learning) and the maintenance of a behavioral modification over time (memory) are assumed to reflect only modifications upstream from the NMJ, within the CNS. The current results challenge this view. Rats were trained to maintain a hind leg in a flexed position to avoid noxious stimulation. As expected, treatments that inhibit activity within the CNS, or disrupt peripheral communication, prevented learning. These manipulations did not affect the maintenance of the acquired response. The results imply that a peripheral modification at the NMJ contributes to the maintenance of the learned response.