To investigate the physiological consequences of the increase in spine density induced by estradiol in pyramidal neurons of the hippocampus, we performed simultaneous whole cell recordings and Ca2+ imaging in CA1 neuron spines and dendrites in hippocampal slices. Four- to eight-days in vitro slice cultures were exposed to 17β-estradiol (EST) for an additional 4- to 8-day period, and spine density was assessed by confocal microscopy of DiI- labeled CA1 pyramidal neurons. Spine density was doubled in both apical and basal dendrites of the CA1 region in EST-treated slices; consistently, a reduction in cell input resistance was observed in EST-treated CA1 neurons. Double immunofluorescence staining of presynaptic (synaptophysin) and postsynaptic (α-subunit of CaMKII) proteins showed an increase in synaptic density after EST treatment. The slopes of the input/output curves of both α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA) and N-methyl-D- aspartate (NMDA) postsynaptic currents were steeper in EST-treated CA1 neurons, consistent with the observed increase in synapse density. To characterize NMDA-dependent synaptic currents and dendritic Ca2+ transients during Schaffer collaterals stimulation, neurons were maintained at +40 mV in the presence of nimodipine, picrotoxin, and 6-cyano-7-nitroquinoxaline-2,3- dione (CNQX). No differences in resting spine or dendritic Ca2+ levels were observed between control and EST-treated CA1 neurons. Intracellular Ca2+ transients during afferent stimulation exhibited a faster slope and reached higher levels in spines than in adjacent dendrites. Peak Ca2+ levels were larger in both spines and dendrites of EST-treated CA1 neurons. Ca2+ gradients between spine heads and dendrites during afferent stimulation were also larger in EST-treated neurons. Both spine and dendritic Ca2+ transients during afferent stimulation were reversibly blocked by D,L-2- amino-5-phosphonovaleric acid (D,L-APV). The increase in spine density and the enhanced NMDA-dependent Ca2+ signals in spines and dendrites induced by EST may underlie a threshold reduction for induction of NMDA-dependent synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus.
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