The NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) subclass of glutamate receptor is essential for the synaptic plasticity thought to underlie learning and memory and for synaptic refinement during development. It is currently believed that the NMDA receptor (NMDAR) is a heteromultimeric channel comprising the ubiquitous NR1 subunit and at least one regionally localized NR2 subunit. Here we report the characterization of a regulatory NMDAR subunit, NR3A (formerly termed NMDAR-L or chi-1), which is expressed primarily during brain development. NR3A co-immunoprecipitates with receptor subunits NR1 and NR2 in cerebrocortical extracts. In single-channel recordings from Xenopus oocytes, addition of NR3A to NR1 and NR2 leads to the appearance of a smaller unitary conductance. Genetic knockout of NR3A in mice results in enhanced NMDA responses and increased dendritic spines in early postnatal cerebrocortical neurons. These data suggest that NR3A is involved in the development of synaptic elements by modulating NMDAR activity.
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