Embryonal carcinoma and embryonic stem cells have served as models to understand basic aspects of neuronal differentiation and are promising candidates for regenerative medicine. Besides being well characterized regarding the capability of embryonal carcinoma and embryonic stem cells to be precursors of different tissues, the molecular mechanisms controlling neuronal differentiation are hardly understood. Neuropeptide and neurotransmitter receptors are expressed at early stages of differentiation prior to synaptogenesis, triggering transient changes in calcium concentration and inducing neurone-specific gene expression. In vitro neuronal differentiation of embryonal carcinoma and embryonic stem cells closely resembles early neuronal development in vivo. Murine P19 EC cells are a well-characterized model for in vitro differentiation, which upon treatment with retinoic acid differentiate into neurones. Expression and activity of various receptor proteins is regulated during their differentiation. Stimulation of kinin-B2, endothelin-B, muscarinic acetylcholine, and N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors results in transient increases of intracellular free calcium concentration [Ca(2+)](i) in P19 cells undergoing neuronal differentiation, whereas embryonal cells do not respond or show a smaller change in [Ca(2+)](i) than differentiating cells. Receptor inhibition, as studied with the example of the kinin-B2 receptor, aborts neuronal maturation of P19 cells, demonstrating the crucial importance of B2 receptors during the differentiation process. Future success in obtaining desired neuronal phenotypes from pluripotent cells in vitro may offer new therapeutic perspectives for curing genetic and acquired dysfunctions of the developing and adult nervous system.
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