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Trafficking of glutamate receptors into and out of synapses is critically involved in the plasticity of excitatory synaptic transmission. Endocytosis and exocytosis of receptors have initially been thought to account alone for this trafficking. However, membrane proteins also traffic through surface lateral diffusion in the plasma membrane. We describe developments in electrophysiological and optical approaches that have allowed for the real-time measurement of glutamate receptor surface trafficking in live neurons. These include (i) specific imaging of surface receptors using a pH-sensitive fluorescent protein; (ii) design of a photoactivable drug to locally inactivate surface receptors and monitor electrophysiologically their recovery; and (iii) application of single-molecule fluorescence microscopy to directly track the movement of individual surface receptors with nanometer resolution inside and outside synapses. Together, these approaches have demonstrated that glutamate receptors diffuse at high rates in the neuronal membrane and suggest a key role for surface diffusion in the regulation of receptor numbers at synapses.
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