The Kölliker–Fuse nucleus (KF) contributes essentially to respiratory pattern formation and adaptation of breathing to afferent information. Systems physiology suggests that these KF functions depend on NMDA receptors (NMDA-R). Recent investigations revealed postnatal changes in the modulation of glutamatergic neurotransmission by brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the KF. Therefore, we investigated postnatal changes in NMDA-R subunit composition and postsynaptic modulation of NMDA-R-mediated currents by BDNF in KF slice preparations derived from three age groups (neonatal: postnatal day (P) 1–5; intermediate: P6–13; juvenile: P14–21). Immunohistochemistry showed a developmental up-regulation of the NR2D subunit. This correlated with a developmental increase in decay time of NMDA currents and a decline of desensitization in response to repetitive exogenous NMDA applications. Thus, developmental up-regulation of the NR2D subunit, which reduces the Mg2+ block of NMDA-R, causes these specific changes in NMDA current characteristics. This may determine the NMDA-R-dependent function of the mature KF in the control of respiratory phase transition. Subsequent experiments revealed that bath-application of BDNF progressively potentiated these repetitively evoked NMDA currents only in intermediate and juvenile age groups. Pharmacological inhibition of protein kinase C (PKC), as a downstream component of the BDNF–tyrosine kinase B receptor (trkB) signalling, prevented BDNF-induced potentiation of NMDA currents. BDNF-induced potentiation of NMDA currents in later developmental stages might be essential for synaptic plasticity during the adaptation of the breathing pattern in response to peripheral/central commands. The lack of plasticity in neonatal neurones strengthens the hypothesis that the respiratory network becomes permissive for activity-dependent plasticity with ongoing postnatal development
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