Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Thesis defense Wei Ba (Donders series 277)

20 March 2017

Promotor: prof. dr. ir. H. van Bokhoven, copromotor: dr. N. Nadif Kasri

Mind the GAPs (and GEFs)! – Rho GTPase signalling in excitatory synapse development and intellectual disability

The human brain is one of the most complex and fascinating organs, which governs fundamental processes including learning and memory. It is now widely believed that synaptic plasticity, the ability of the brain to modify the efficacy of neuronal communication in response to experience, is the cellular basis of learning and memory. The dynamic modification of neuronal communication can be achieved by the structural regulation of spines, small actin enriched protrusions on dendrites, as well as the functional regulation via remodeling neurotransmitter receptors such as glutamate ionotropic alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionic acid receptors (AMPArs). Evidence suggests that impairments in spine structure and synaptic strength during development contribute to numerous neurological diseases including autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and intellectual disability (ID). To understand how the normal brain regulates cognition and how neurodevelopmental disorders may occur, mechanistic insights into the regulation of structural and functional plasticity are required. Rho subfamily of GTP-binding proteins, key regulators of actin cytoskeleton dynamics, has been found to play critical roles in synapse formation, maturation and maintenance. With the main focus on the genes that are involved in Rho GTPase signaling pathways, the research reported in the thesis reveals the roles of several previously uncharacterized genes, most of which are linked to ID, in neuronal development at the synaptic level. These results enrich our understanding of cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying learning and memory, and shed light on novel and effective therapies for neurological disorders including ID.