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Injury and disease in the CNS increases the amount of tumor necrosis factor α (TNFα) that neurons are exposed to. This cytokine is central to the inflammatory response that occurs after injury and during prolonged CNS disease, and contributes to the process of neuronal cell death. Previous studies have addressed how long-term apoptotic-signaling pathways that are initiated by TNFα might influence these processes, but the effects of inflammation on neurons and synaptic function in the timescale of minutes after exposure are largely unexplored. Our published studies examining the effect of TNFα on trafficking of AMPA-type glutamate receptors (AMPARs) in hippocampal neurons demonstrate that glial-derived TNFα causes a rapid (<15 minute) increase in the number of neuronal, surface-localized, synaptic AMPARs leading to an increase in synaptic strength. This indicates that TNFα-signal transduction acts to facilitate increased surface localization of AMPARs from internal postsynaptic stores. Importantly, an excess of surface localized AMPARs might predispose the neuron to glutamate-mediated excitotoxicity and excessive intracellular calcium concentrations, leading to cell death. This suggests a new mechanism for excitotoxic TNFα-induced neuronal death that is initiated minutes after neurons are exposed to the products of the inflammatory response.
Here we review the importance of AMPAR trafficking in normal neuronal function and how abnormalities that are mediated by glial-derived cytokines such as TNFα can be central in causing neuronal disorders. We have further investigated the effects of TNFα on different neuronal cell types and present new data from cortical and hippocampal neurons in culture. Finally, we have expanded our investigation of the temporal profile of the action of this cytokine relevant to neuronal damage. We conclude that TNFα-mediated effects on AMPAR trafficking are common in diverse neuronal cell types and very rapid in their onset. The abnormal AMPAR trafficking elicited by TNFα might present a novel target to aid the development of new neuroprotective drugs.