Although acetylcholine is the major neurotransmitter operating at the skeletal neuromuscular junction of many invertebrates and of vertebrates, glutamate participates in modulating cholinergic transmission and plastic changes in the last. Presynaptic terminals of neuromuscular junctions contain and release glutamate that contribute to the regulation of synaptic neurotransmission through its interaction with pre- and post-synaptic receptors activating downstream signaling pathways that tune synaptic efficacy and plasticity. During vertebrate development, the chemical nature of the neurotransmitter at the vertebrate neuromuscular junction can be experimentally shifted from acetylcholine to other mediators (including glutamate) through the modulation of calcium dynamics in motoneurons and, when the neurotransmitter changes, the muscle fiber expresses and assembles new receptors to match the nature of the new mediator. Finally, in adult rodents, by diverting descending spinal glutamatergic axons to a denervated muscle, a functional reinnervation can be achieved with the formation of new neuromuscular junctions that use glutamate as neurotransmitter and express ionotropic glutamate receptors and other markers of central glutamatergic synapses. Here, we summarize the past and recent experimental evidences in support of a role of glutamate as a mediator at the synapse between the motor nerve ending and the skeletal muscle fiber, focusing on the molecules and signaling pathways that are present and activated by glutamate at the vertebrate neuromuscular junction.
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