The extracellular matrix at the neuromuscular junction plays many roles. The matrix plays a structural role in that it maintains the spatial relationship between the muscle cell, Schwann cell, and presynaptic motor neuron. The matrix also plays a role in cell-to-cell signaling. The most studied member of this group is the heparan sulfate proteoglycan, agrin. Agrin is an integral member of the synaptic matrix, and it plays the pivotal role of instructing the muscle cell to aggregate acetylcholine receptors (AChRs) to the synapse. Agrin is released by the motor neuron, where it binds stably to the extracellular matrix. Agrin interacts with the muscle-specific tyrosine kinase (MuSK). Mice that lack agrin, or MuSK, fail to form neuromuscular junctions. Thus, the extracellular matrix is critical to both the structure and function of the neuromuscular junction.
Remodeling of the extracellular matrix at the neuromuscular junction is needed to maintain stability, to allow growth, or to destabilize and remove synapses. Matrix metalloproteinases are key regulators of the extracellular matrix. In particular, matrix metalloproteinase 3 (MMP3) has been implicated in regulation of synaptic structure. MMP3 cleaves agrin. Antibodies to MMP3 recognize molecules concentrated at the synapses of frog neuromuscular junctions. Neuromuscular junctions in MMP3 null mutant mice have increased junctional folds, and AChR aggregates. Changes in synaptic activity will alter the activity of MMP3 at the synapse. Thus, the extracellular matrix is critical to the formation of the synapse, and synaptic activity controls the structure and function of the molecules in the extracellular matrix.