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Biol Psychiatry. 2019 Apr 15;85(8):623-634. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2018.11.022. Epub 2018 Dec 5.

Sex-Specific Regulation of Fear Memory by Targeted Epigenetic Editing of Cdk5.

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Department of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Gene Delivery Technology Core, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts.
Department of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Penn Epigenetics Institute, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Electronic address:



Sex differences in the expression and prevalence of trauma- and stress-related disorders have led to a growing interest in the sex-specific molecular and epigenetic mechanisms underlying these diseases. Cyclin-dependent kinase 5 (CDK5) is known to underlie both fear memory and stress behavior in male mice. Given our recent finding that targeted histone acetylation of Cdk5 regulates stress responsivity in male mice, we hypothesized that such a mechanism may be functionally relevant in female mice as well.


We applied epigenetic editing of Cdk5 in the hippocampus and examined the regulation of fear memory retrieval in male and female mice. Viral expression of zinc finger proteins targeting histone acetylation to the Cdk5 promoter was paired with a quantification of learning and memory of contextual fear conditioning, expression of CDK5, and enrichment of histone modifications of the Cdk5 gene.


We found that male mice exhibit stronger long-term memory retrieval than do female mice, and this finding was associated with male-specific epigenetic activation of hippocampal Cdk5 expression. Sex differences in behavior and epigenetic regulation of Cdk5 occurred after long-term, but not short-term, fear memory retrieval. Finally, targeted histone acetylation of hippocampal Cdk5 promoter attenuated fear memory retrieval and increased tau phosphorylation in female but not male mice.


Epigenetic editing uncovered a female-specific role of Cdk5 activation in attenuating fear memory retrieval. This finding may be attributed to CDK5 mediated hyperphosphorylation of tau only in the female hippocampus. Sex-specific epigenetic regulation of Cdk5 may reflect differences in the effect of CDK5 on downstream target proteins that regulate memory.


CDK5; Epigenetics; Memory; PTSD; Sexual dimorphism; Zinc fingers

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