Botulinum and tetanus neurotoxin-induced blockade of synaptic transmission in networked cultures of human and rodent neurons

Phillip H. Beske, Aaron B. Bradford, Justin O. Grynovicki, Elliot J. Glotfelty, Katie M. Hoffman, Kyle S. Hubbard, Kaylie M. Tuznik, Patrick M. McNutt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Clinical manifestations of tetanus and botulism result from an intricate series of interactions between clostridial neurotoxins (CNTs) and nerve terminal proteins that ultimately cause proteolytic cleavage of SNARE (soluble N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive factor attachment protein receptor) proteins and functional blockade of neurotransmitter release. Although detection of cleaved SNARE proteins is routinely used as a molecular readout of CNT intoxication in cultured cells, impaired synaptic function is the pathophysiological basis of clinical disease. Work in our laboratory has suggested that the blockade of synaptic neurotransmission in networked neuron cultures offers a phenotypic readout of CNT intoxication that more closely replicates the functional endpoint of clinical disease. Here, we explore the value of measuring spontaneous neurotransmission frequencies as novel and functionally relevant readouts of CNT intoxication. The generalizability of this approach was confirmed in primary neuron cultures as well as human and mouse stem cell-derived neurons exposed to botulinum neurotoxin serotypes A-G and tetanus neurotoxin. The sensitivity and specificity of synaptic activity as a reporter of intoxication was evaluated in assays representing the principal clinical and research purposes of in vivo studies. Our findings confirm that synaptic activity offers a novel and functionally relevant readout for the in vitro characterizations of CNTs. They further suggest that the analysis of synaptic activity in neuronal cell cultures can serve as a surrogate for neuromuscular paralysis in the mouse lethal assay, and therefore is expected to significantly reduce the need for terminal animal use in toxin studies and facilitate identification of candidate therapeutics in cell-based screening assays.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)503-515
Number of pages13
JournalToxicological Sciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2016


  • Botulinum toxins
  • Electrophysiology
  • Neurons
  • Synaptic transmission
  • Tetanus toxin
  • spontaneous postsynaptic currents


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