Date of Award

Summer 7-24-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Dr. Vincent Rehder


In addition to acting in synaptic transmission, neurotransmitters have been shown to play roles in the development of nervous system. Developing neurons extend neurites to connect to their target cells, and growth cones at the tip of growing neurites are critical for pathfinding. Although evidence for the regulation of axonal growth and growth cone guidance by neurotransmitters and neuromodulators is emerging, less is known about the mechanisms by which neurotransmitters affect developing neurons. Here, I focus on three neurotransmitters/ neuromodulators and describe their actions (a) at the level of growth cone, especially on filopodia, which serve as sensors that allow growth cones to probe the environment they are traversing, and (b) on how neurotransmitters modulate neuronal electrical properties, which, in itself, have been shown to affect neurite extension. The goals of this dissertation are to investigate 1) the cholinergic modulation of neuronal activity and its effects on growth cone motility; 2) the excitatory modulation of neuronal excitability by nitric oxide (NO); and 3) the inhibitory modulation of neuronal activity by dopamine (DA).

The work uses a well-established model system to investigate growth cone motility and neuronal activity: identified neurons from the pond snail Helisoma trivolvis studied in cell culture or in the intact ganglion in situ. The study of B5 neurons demonstrates that acetylcholine (ACh) induces filopodial elongation, which is mediated by opening of nicotinic ACh receptors, membrane depolarization, and elevation of intracellular Ca level in growth cones. This dissertation also shows that NO inhibits two types of Ca-activated K channels to depolarize the membrane potential of B19 neurons. Additionally, the study reveals that DA serves as an inhibitory neurotransmitter to hyperpolarize and silence the electrical activity of firing B5 neurons via a D2-like receptor/PLC/K channel pathway. Taken together, this dissertation elucidates novel cellular mechanisms through which neurotransmitters can regulate growth cone motility and neuronal electrical properties, further supporting evidence for potential roles of neurotransmitters in axon pathfinding and synaptic transmission in vivo.