Independent regulation of early trafficking of NMDA receptors by ligand-binding domains of the GluN1 and GluN2A subunits

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The essential role of N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors (NMDARs) in excitatory neurotransmission is underscored by numerous pathogenic variants in the GluN subunits, including those identified in their ligand-binding domains (LBDs). The prevailing hypothesis postulates that the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) quality control machinery verifies the agonist occupancy of NMDARs; however, whether it controls the structure of LBDs or the functionality of NMDARs is unknown. Using alanine substitutions combined with microscopy and electrophysiology, we found that surface expression of GluN1/GluN2A receptors, the primary NMDAR subtype in the adult forebrain, strongly correlates with EC 50 values for glycine and L-glutamate. Interestingly, co-expression of both GluN1 and GluN2A subunits with alanine substitutions led to an additive reduction in the surface number of GluN1/GluN2A receptors, as did co-expression of both GluN1 and GluN2A subunits containing closed cleft conformation of LBDs. The synchronized ER release confirmed the altered regulation of early trafficking of GluN1/GluN2A receptors bearing alanine substitutions in the LBDs. Furthermore, the human versions of GluN1/GluN2A receptors containing pathogenic GluN1-S688Y, GluN1-S688P, GluN1-D732E, GluN2A-S511L, and GluN2A-T690M variants exhibited distinct surface expression compared to the corresponding alanine substitutions. Mutant cycles of GluN1-S688, GluN1-D732, GluN2A-S511, and GluN2A-T690 residues revealed, in most cases, a weak correlation between surface expression of the mutant GluN1/GluN2A receptors and their EC 50 values for glycine or L-glutamate. Consistent with our experimental data, molecular modeling and dynamics showed that the ER quality control machinery likely perceives structural changes of the LBDs but not the functionality of GluN1/GluN2A receptors.

Significant statement

Our study showed that structural changes in LBDs independently regulate the early trafficking of GluN1/GluN2A receptors and that the surface numbers of mutant GluN1/GluN2A receptors do not necessarily correlate with their agonist sensitivity. In addition, we validated a novel system of synchronized release of GluN1/GluN2A receptors from the ER. Together, our experimental and in silico findings support the urgency of further detailed research on the regulation of early trafficking of NMDARs, as it may open the avenue to targeted therapeutic intervention of CNS disorders associated with pathogenic variants in GluN subunits.

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