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Epigenetic control of neurobehavioural plasticity: the role of neurotrophins

Branchi, I.; Francia, N.; Alleva, E.

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Nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) are two neurotrophins involved in the differentiation, growth and maintenance of selected peripheral and central populations of neuronal cells, during development and at adulthood. Furthermore, neuronal activity enhances expression and action of these neurotrophins, modifying synaptic transmission and connectivity. Neurotrophin production has been shown to be experience-dependent. In particular, during early developmental phases, experiences such as maternal deprivation or exposure to an enriched environment markedly affect NGF and BDNF levels. At adulthood, psychosocial stress has been shown to markedly alter NGF and BDNF levels, both in plasma and selected brain areas, including the hypothalamus and hippocampus. These results have been extended to humans, showing that NGF levels are enhanced by emotional stress induced by parachute jumping. Overall, these findings suggest a role of neurotrophins as factors mediating both short- and long-term effects of experience on brain structure and function.

Section of Behavioural Neurosciences, Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, Istituto Superiore di Sanità, 00161 Rome, Italy

Sponsorship: This work was supported by Ricerca finalizzata ISS Stem Cells to Luigi Aloe and by the Italian Ministry of Health (Ricerca Finalizzata 2000) Alzheimer research project: ‘Experimental models of stress: neuronal death effects and neuroprotective mechanisms’ to E.A.

Correspondence and requests for reprints to Dr. Igor Branchi, Section of Behavioural Neurosciences, Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Viale Regina Elena 299, 00161 Roma, Italy

e-mail: branchi@iss.it

Received 1 April 2004 Accepted as revised 18 June 2004

© 2004 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.