A GIT1/PIX/Rac/PAK signaling module regulates spine morphogenesis and synapse formation through MLC

Huaye Zhang, Donna J. Webb, Hannelore Asmussen, Shuang Niu, Alan F. Horwitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

282 Scopus citations


Three of seven recently identified genes mutated in nonsyndromic mental retardation are involved in Rho family signaling. Two of the gene products, α-p-21-activated kinase (PAK) interacting exchange factor (αPIX) and PAK3, form a complex with the synaptic adaptor protein G-protein-coupled receptor kinase-interacting protein 1 (GIT1). Using an RNA interference approach, we show that GIT1 is critical for spine and synapse formation. We also show that Rac is locally activated in dendritic spines using fluorescence resonance energy transfer. This local activation of Rac is regulated by PIX, a Rac guanine nucleotide exchange factor. PAK1 and PAK3 serve as downstream effectors of Rac in regulating spine and synapse formation. Active PAK promotes the formation of spines and dendritic protrusions, which correlates with an increase in the number of excitatory synapses. These effects are dependent on the kinase activity of PAK, and PAK functions through phosphorylating myosin II regulatory light chain (MLC). Activated MLC causes an increase in dendritic spine and synapse formation, whereas inhibiting myosin ATPase activity results in decreased spine and synapse formation. Finally, both activated PAK and activated MLC can rescue the defects of GIT1 knockdown, suggesting that PAK and MLC are downstream of GIT1 in regulating spine and synapse formation. Our results point to a signaling complex, consisting of GIT1, PIX, Rac, and PAK, that plays an essential role in the regulation of dendritic spine and synapse formation and provides a potential mechanism by which αPIX and PAK3 mutations affect cognitive functions in mental retardation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3379-3388
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number13
StatePublished - Mar 30 2005
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuroscience(all)


  • Cytoskeleton
  • Dendritic spines
  • GIT1
  • MLC
  • PAK
  • PIX
  • Rac
  • Synaptogenesis


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