The nanoscale topographical arrangement of voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCC) and synaptic vesicles (SVs) determines synaptic strength and plasticity, but whether distinct spatial distributions underpin diversity of synaptic function is unknown. We performed single bouton Ca2+ imaging, Ca2+ chelator competition, immunogold electron microscopic (EM) localization of VGCCs and the active zone (AZ) protein Munc13-1, at two cerebellar synapses. Unexpectedly, we found that weak synapses exhibited 3-fold more VGCCs than strong synapses, while the coupling distance was 5-fold longer. Reaction-diffusion modeling could explain both functional and structural data with two strikingly different nanotopographical motifs: strong synapses are composed of SVs that are tightly coupled (∼10 nm) to VGCC clusters, whereas at weak synapses VGCCs were excluded from the vicinity (∼50 nm) of docked vesicles. The distinct VGCC-SV topographical motifs also confer differential sensitivity to neuromodulation. Thus, VGCC-SV arrangements are not canonical, and their diversity could underlie functional heterogeneity across CNS synapses.
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