ARIA is a member of a family of polypeptide growth and differentiation factors that also includes glial growth factor (GGF), neu differentiation factor, and heregulin. ARIA mRNA is expressed in all cholinergic neurons of the central nervous systems of rats and chicks, including spinal cord motor neurons. In vitro, ARIA elevates the rate of acetylcholine receptor incorporation into the plasma membrane of primary cultures of chick myotubes. To study whether ARIA may regulate the synthesis of junctional synaptic acetylcholine receptors in chick embryos, we have developed riboprobes and polyclonal antibody reagents that recognize isoforms of ARIA that include an amino-terminal immunoglobulin C2 domain and examined the expression and distribution of ARIA in motor neurons and at the neuromuscular junction. We detected significant ARIA mRNA expression in motor neurons as early as embryonic day 5, around the time that motor axons are making initial synaptic contacts with their target muscle cells. In older embryos and postnatal animals, we found ARIA protein concentrated in the synaptic cleft at neuromuscular junctions, consistent with transport down motor axons and release at nerve terminals. At high resolution using immunoelectron microscopy, we detected ARIA immunoreactivity exclusively in the synaptic basal lamina in a pattern consistent with binding to synapse specific components on the presynaptic side of the basal lamina. These results support a role for ARIA as a trophic factor released by motor neuron terminals that may regulate the formation of mature neuromuscular synapses.

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