Spinal cord motor neurons control voluntary movement by relaying messages that arrive from upper brain centres to the innervated muscles. Despite the importance of motor neurons in human health and disease, the precise control of their membrane dynamics and its effect on motor neuron homoeostasis and survival are poorly understood. In particular, the molecular basis of the co-ordination of specific endocytic events with the axonal retrograde transport pathway is largely unknown. To study these important vesicular trafficking events, we pioneered the use of atoxic fragments of tetanus and botulinum neurotoxins to follow endocytosis and retrograde axonal transport in motor neurons. These neurotoxins bind specifically to pre-synaptic nerve terminals, where they are internalized. Whereas botulinum neurotoxins remain at the neuromuscular junction, tetanus toxin is retrogradely transported along the axon to the cell body, where it is released into the intersynaptic space and is internalized by adjacent inhibitory interneurons. The high neurospecificity and the differential intracellular sorting make tetanus and botulinum neurotoxins ideal tools to study neuronal physiology. In the present review, we discuss recent developments in our understanding of the internalization and trafficking of these molecules in spinal cord motor neurons. Furthermore, we describe the development of a reliable transfection method for motor neurons based on microinjection, which will be extremely useful for dissecting further the molecular basis of membrane dynamics and axonal transport in these cells.

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