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PLoS One. 2014 Jul 9;9(7):e101770. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0101770. eCollection 2014.

α-Actinin-2 mediates spine morphology and assembly of the post-synaptic density in hippocampal neurons.

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Department of Cell Biology, University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville, Virginia, United States of America.


Dendritic spines are micron-sized protrusions that constitute the primary post-synaptic sites of excitatory neurotransmission in the brain. Spines mature from a filopodia-like protrusion into a mushroom-shaped morphology with a post-synaptic density (PSD) at its tip. Modulation of the actin cytoskeleton drives these morphological changes as well as the spine dynamics that underlie learning and memory. Several PSD molecules respond to glutamate receptor activation and relay signals to the underlying actin cytoskeleton to regulate the structural changes in spine and PSD morphology. α-Actinin-2 is an actin filament cross-linker, which localizes to dendritic spines, enriched within the post-synaptic density, and implicated in actin organization. We show that loss of α-actinin-2 in rat hippocampal neurons creates an increased density of immature, filopodia-like protrusions that fail to mature into a mushroom-shaped spine during development. α-Actinin-2 knockdown also prevents the recruitment and stabilization of the PSD in the spine, resulting in failure of synapse formation, and an inability to structurally respond to chemical stimulation of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)-type glutamate receptor. The Ca2+-insensitive EF-hand motif in α-actinin-2 is necessary for the molecule's function in regulating spine morphology and PSD assembly, since exchanging it for the similar but Ca2+-sensitive domain from α-actinin-4, another α-actinin isoform, inhibits its function. Furthermore, when the Ca2+-insensitive domain from α-actinin-2 is inserted into α-actinin-4 and expressed in neurons, it creates mature spines. These observations support a model whereby α-actinin-2, partially through its Ca2+-insensitive EF-hand motif, nucleates PSD formation via F-actin organization and modulates spine maturation to mediate synaptogenesis.

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