The formation and plasticity of dendritic spines and synapses, which are poorly understood on a molecular level, are critical for cognitive functions, such as learning and memory. The adaptor protein containing a PH domain, PTB domain, and leucine zipper motif (APPL1) is emerging as a critical regulator of various cellular processes in non-neuronal cells, but its function in the nervous system is not well understood. Here, we show that APPL1 localizes to dendritic spines and synapses and regulates the development of these structures in hippocampal neurons. Knockdown of endogenous APPL1 using siRNA led to a significant decrease in the number of spines as well as synapses and this defect could be rescued by expression of siRNA-resistant APPL1. Expression of exogenous APPL1 increased the spine and synaptic density and the amount of surface GluR1-containing α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionic acid receptors (AMPARs). Deletion of the C-terminal phosphotyrosine binding domain of APPL1, which binds the serine/threonine kinase Akt, resulted in a significant decrease in the spine and synaptic density, suggesting a role for Akt in regulating the development of these structures. Consistent with this, knockdown of Akt with siRNA or expression of dominant negative Akt led to a dramatic decrease in spine and synapse formation. In addition, APPL1 increased the amount of active Akt in spines and synapses and the effects of APPL1 on these structures were dependent on Akt, indicating that Akt is an effector of APPL1 in the regulation of these processes. Moreover, APPL1 signaling modulates spine and synapse formation through p21-activated kinase (PAK). Thus, our results indicate that APPL1 signaling through Akt and PAK is critical for spine and synaptic development and point to a role for APPL1 and its effectors in regulating cognitive function.
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