Scientists uncover a new pathway that regulates information processing in the brain

A new pathway that regulates information processing in the brain may provide new insight into some types of mental retardation.

Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), which has campuses in La Jolla, California, and in Jupiter, Florida, have identified a new pathway that appears to play a major role in information processing in the brain. Their research also offers insight into how imbalances in this pathway could contribute to cognitive abnormalities in humans.

The study, published in the 9 November 2012 issue of the journal Cell, focuses on the actions of a protein called HDAC4. The researchers found that HDAC4 is critically involved in regulating genes essential for communication between neurons.

''We found that HDAC4 represses these genes, and its function in a given neuron is controlled by activity of other neurons forming a circuit,'' said TSRI Assistant Professor Anton Maximov, senior investigator for the study.

Synapses, specialised junctions that allow neurons to exchange information, are incredibly complex and built with hundreds of genes. Many of these genes become induced when neurons receive excitatory input from other neurons, including those activated by sensory experiences such as vision, hearing and smell. This process influences the assembly of neural circuits during development, and plays a fundamental role in learning and memory.

The Maximov laboratory is interested in understanding how synapses are formed and regulated. Previous studies have identified several factors necessary for activity-dependent transcription in the brain (transcription is a process of converting genetic information from DNA to RNA), but Maximov notes many puzzles remain to be solved.