Molecular Biology of Acetylcholine Formation and Release
Because the neuromuscular junction is large enough to be studied easily, it is one of the few synapses of the nervous system for which most of the details of chemical transmission have been worked out. The formation and release of acetylcholine at this junction occur in the following stages:
1. Small vesicles, about 40 nanometers in size, are formed by the Golgi apparatus in the cell body of the motoneuron in the spinal cord. These vesicles are then transported by axoplasm that “streams” through the core of the axon from the central cell body in the spinal cord all the way to the neuromuscular junction at the tips of the peripheral nerve fibers. About 300,000 of these small vesicles collect in the nerve terminals of a single skeletal muscle end plate.
2. Acetylcholine is synthesized in the cytosol of the nerve fiber terminal but is immediately transported through the membranes of the vesicles to their interior, where it is stored in highly concentrated form, about 10,000 molecules of acetylcholine in each vesicle.
3. When an action potential arrives at the nerve terminal, it opens many calcium channels in the membrane of the nerve terminal because this terminal has an abundance of voltage-gated calcium channels. As a result, the calcium ion concentration inside the terminal membrane increases about 100-fold, which in turn increases the rate of fusion of the acetylcholine vesicles with the terminal membrane about 10,000-fold. This fusion makes many of the vesicles rupture, allowing exocytosis of acetylcholine into the synaptic space.About 125 vesicles usually rupture with each action potential. Then, after a few milliseconds, the acetylcholine is split by acetylcholinesterase into acetate ion and choline, and the choline is reabsorbed actively into the neural terminal to be reused to form new acetylcholine. This sequence of events occurs within a period of 5 to 10 milliseconds.
4. The number of vesicles available in the nerve ending is sufficient to allow transmission of only a few thousand nerve-to-muscle impulses. Therefore, for continued function of the neuromuscular junction, new vesicles need to be re-formed rapidly. Within a few seconds after each action potential is over, “coated pits” appear in the terminal nerve membrane, caused by contractile proteins in the nerve ending, especially the protein clathrin, which is attached to the membrane in the areas of the original vesicles. Within about 20 seconds, the proteins contract and cause the pits to break away to the interior of the membrane, thus forming new vesicles. Within another few seconds, acetylcholine is transported to the interior of these vesicles, and they are then ready for a new cycle of acetylcholine release.