Role of the NR2 subunit composition and intracellular C-terminal domain in N-methy-D-aspartate receptor signalling.
N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors (NMDARs) are glutamate-gated ionotropic receptors. When activated, NMDARs let extracellular sodium and calcium ions enter neurons. This calcium influx, depending on its duration, intensity and the presence of nearby signalling proteins can signal to synaptic plasticity. Additionally, physiological NMDAR activity promotes pro-survival cascades and gene transcription, whereas both lack of activation and overactivation of these receptors trigger pro-death signals. Several neurodegenerative pathologies such as stroke/ischemia and Alzheimer’s disease are thought to involve NMDAR overactivation, so-called “excitotoxicity”, but since NMDARs are important for normal neuronal physiology, potential therapeutical approaches needs to go beyond simple antagonism. Here, we studied the receptor subunit composition and the molecular cascades downstream of the receptor activation to try and isolate the pro-death pathways in NMDAR-mediated excitotoxicity. We found that the NR2 subunit composition did not dictate the type of NMDAR-mediated signals, as receptors comprised of NR2B subunits were able to signal to death, survival and plasticity. However, we also found that the intracellular tail of the NR2B subunit was more efficient at triggering neuronal death compared to the NR2A C-terminus, which suggests that different pro-death signalling complexes are associated to each subunit. Two pro-death signals, the p38 and c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) cascades, are key mediators of neuronal excitotoxicity. In a non-neuronal cell line, NMDAR-mediated cell death could be reconstituted but was found to rely solely on JNK and not p38. This was due to the lack of pro-death signals from the NR2B-PDZ domain, a cytoplasmic interacting domain which forms a signalling cassette with the neuronal proteins PSD-95 and neuronal nitric oxide synthase. This PDZ-ligand recruits the p38 cascade in neurons, but was absent in non-neuronal cells. The pro-death p38 pathway could be inhibited in neurons by disrupting the PDZ domain interactions, which protects against excitotoxicity. This disruption was not affecting normal synaptic transmission, potentiation or survival signalling, suggesting that this could be a therapeutically viable avenue. Thus, this work has expanded the understanding of how NMDAR subunits and their cytoplasmic domains mediate signalling leading to a variety of cellular outcomes; a crucial point for the development of a strategy specifically targeting NMDAR- mediated pro-death signalling.