The amino-terminal domains of NMDA receptor subunits are important for receptor assembly and desensitization, and incorporate the high-affinity binding sites for zinc and ifenprodil. These amino-terminal ligands are thought of as subunit-specific receptor inhibitors. However, multiple NMDA receptor subtypes contribute to EPSCs at wild-type hippocampal synapses. To understand the action of amino-terminal ligands, we first used cultured hippocampal neurons fromN2AandN2Bknock-out mice. EPSCs from these neurons have properties that are consistent with N1/N2B and N1/N2A diheteromeric receptors, respectively. As expected, zinc reduced the EPSC peak amplitude from N2B KO neurons, but surprisingly also prolonged the deactivation, resulting in a marked redistribution of charge. Consistent with prolongation of the EPSC, zinc produced a longer latency to first opening of glutamate-bound receptors, which resulted in a decrease in the number of receptors that opened by the peak. Ifenprodil had similar effects on EPSCs from N2A KO neurons. In neurons from wild-type mice, zinc or ifenprodil reduced the EPSC peak, but only zinc caused significant charge redistribution, consistent with a small contribution of N1/N2B diheteromers in these neurons. Our results indicate that ligand binding to amino-terminal domains can alter the behavior of synaptic NMDA receptors under the nonequilibrium conditions of glutamate release during synaptic transmission. By prolonging EPSCs, amino-terminal ligands could markedly affect the computational properties of NMDA receptors and could potentially be exploited for therapeutic purposes.
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