Development of the cerebral cortex requires the complex integration of extracellular stimuli to affect changes in gene expression. Trophic stimulation activates specialized intracellular signaling cascades to instruct processes necessary for the elaborate cellular diversity, architecture, and function of the cortex. The canonical RAS/RAF/MEK/ERK (ERK/MAPK) cascade is a ubiquitously expressed kinase pathway that regulates crucial aspects of neurodevelopment. Mutations in the ERK/MAPK pathway or its regulators give rise to neurodevelopmental syndromes termed the “RASopathies.” RASopathy individuals present with neurological symptoms that include intellectual disability, ADHD, and seizures. The precise cellular mechanisms that drive neurological impairments in RASopathy individuals remain unclear. In this thesis, I aimed to 1) address how RASopathy mutations affect neurodevelopment, 2) elucidate fundamental requirements of ERK/MAPK in GABAergic circuits, and 3) determine how aberrant ERK/MAPK signaling disrupts GABAergic development.
Here, I show that a Noonan Syndrome-linked gain-of-function mutation Raf1L613V, drives modest changes in astrocyte and oligodendrocyte progenitor cell (OPC) density in the mouse cortex and hippocampus. Raf1L613V mutant mice exhibited enhanced performance in hippocampal-dependent spatial reference and working memory and amygdala-dependent fear learning tasks. However, we observed normal perineuronal net (PNN) accumulation around mutant parvalbumin-expressing (PV) interneurons. Though PV-interneurons were minimally affected by the Raf1L613V mutation, other RASopathy mutations converge on aberrant GABAergic development as a mediator of neurological dysfunction.
I therefore hypothesized interneuron expression of the constitutively active Mek1S217/221E (caMek1) mutation would be sufficient to perturb GABAergic circuit development. Interestingly, the caMek1 mutation selectively disrupted crucial PV-interneuron developmental processes. During embryogenesis, I detected expression of cleaved-caspase 3 (CC3) in the medial ganglionic eminence (MGE). Interestingly, adult mutant cortices displayed a selective 50% reduction in PV-expressing interneurons, but not other interneuron subtypes. PV-interneuron loss was associated with seizure-like activity in mutants and coincided with reduced perisomatic synapses. Mature mutant PV-interneurons exhibited somal hypertrophy and a substantial increase in PNN accumulation. Aberrant GABAergic development culminated in reduced behavioral response inhibition, a process linked to ADHD-like behaviors. Collectively, these data provide insight into the mechanistic underpinnings of RASopathy neuropathology and suggest that modulation of GABAergic circuits may be an effective therapeutic option for RASopathy individuals.