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A general signaling cascade to wire the brain

June 20, 2018      Author: Wu Qiang

A new study, entitled "Alpha protocadherins and Pyk2 kinase regulate cortical neuron migration and cytoskeletal dynamics via Rac1 GTPase and WAVE complex in mice", is published by the Qiang Wu lab from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in the eLife.

There are hundreds of billions of neurons in a human brain, and each one can form several thousand connections with other neurons. This complex network determines our thoughts, memories, personality, and behavior, but how does it form? During brain development, specific areas give rise to new neurons, which then migrate long distances to other parts of the brain. Upon arrival, they generate several structures, called dendrites, which connect with other neurons.

To distribute themselves correctly, the migrating immature neurons must be able to travel long distances and to steer clear of one another. The dendrites from a single mature neuron must also avoid each other, a phenomenon known as self-avoidance. Certain membrane-spanning proteins, called clustered protocadherins, may help neurons achieve this. The portion of the protocadherins that sits on the cell surface is highly variable, and acts as a zipcode that helps cells to recognize one another. However, the section of the protein inside the cell varies little and is shared by all members of a protocadherin family. When the clustered protocadherin is 'switched on', this internal segment can trigger a cascade of reactions that create changes in the cell. Yet, little was known about the nature of this signaling cascade.

Using gene editing in mice, Fan, Lu et al. focus on the signaling cascade of the clustered protocadherin alpha family. The experiments show that the internal portion of these proteins interacts with a protein complex called WAVE. It also inhibits an enzyme known as Pyk2, which increases the activity of another enzyme called Rac1 GTPase that then further activates WAVE. This results in the WAVE complex also interacting with the internal skeleton inside the neurons and dendrites, which regulates the ability of these cells to migrate and of the dendrites to avoid each other.

Many brain conditions, such as autism spectrum disorders or depression, result from abnormal neuronal migration and connectivity. Mutations in the genes of clustered protocadherins increase the risk of these disorders. By showing how these proteins help to regulate the migration and connectivity of neurons, Fan, Lu et al. add to our understanding of brain development in health and disease.


Translated by Wu Qiang