N-Methyl-d-aspartate type glutamate receptors (NMDARs) are key mediators of synaptic activity-regulated gene transcription in neurons, both during development and in the adult brain. Developmental differences in the glutamate receptor ionotropic NMDA 2 (GluN2) subunit composition of NMDARs determines whether they activate the transcription factor cAMP-responsive element-binding protein 1 (CREB). However, whether the developmentally regulated GluN3A subunit also modulates NMDAR-induced transcription is unknown. Here, using an array of techniques, including quantitative real-time PCR, immunostaining, reporter gene assays, RNA-Seq, and two-photon glutamate uncaging with calcium imaging, we show that knocking down GluN3A in rat hippocampal neurons promotes the inducible transcription of a subset of NMDAR-sensitive genes. We found that this enhancement is mediated by the accumulation of phosphorylated p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase in the nucleus, which drives the activation of the transcription factor myocyte enhancer factor 2C (MEF2C) and promotes the transcription of a subset of synaptic activity-induced genes, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (Bdnf) and activity-regulated cytoskeleton-associated protein (Arc). Our evidence that GluN3A regulates MEF2C-dependent transcription reveals a novel mechanism by which NMDAR subunit composition confers specificity to the program of synaptic activity-regulated gene transcription in developing neurons.
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