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Like a molecular knob: that's how a gene controls the electrical activity of the brain

08 May 2020
New research published in Cerebral Cortex sheds light on the ability of Foxg1 to regulate the underlying mechanism of all nerve cell functions

It works like a very fine “molecular knob” able to modulate the electrical activity of the neurons of our cerebral cortex, crucial to the functioning of our brain. Its name is Foxg1, it is a gene, and its unprecedented role is the protagonist of the discovery just published in the journal Cerebral Cortex. Foxg1 was already known for being a “master gene” able to coordinate the action of hundreds of other genes necessary for the development of our anterior central nervous system.

As this new study reports, the “excitability” of neurons, namely their ability to respond to stimuli, communicating between each other and carrying out all their tasks, also depends on this gene. To discover this, the researchers developed and studied animal and cellular models in which Foxg1 has an artificially altered activity: a lack of activity, as it happens in patients affected by a rare variant of Rett Syndrome, which leads to clinical manifestations of the autistic realm; or an excessive action, as in a specific variant of the West Syndrome, with neurological symptoms such as serious epilepsy and severe cognitive impairment. As deduced by the scientists in the research, the flaw in the “knob” lies in an altered electrical activity in the brain with important consequences for the entire system, similar to what happens in the two syndromes mentioned.

Shedding light on this mechanism, say the researchers, allows to understand more deeply the functioning of our central nervous system in sickness and in health, a fundamental step to assess possible future therapeutic interventions for these pathologies.  What has just been published is the latest in a series of three studies on the Foxg1 gene, recently published by the researchers of SISSA on Cerebral Cortex. It is the result of a project begun more than five years ago, which saw the team of Professor Antonello Mallamaci of SISSA in the front line with researchers of the University of Trento and the Neuroscience Institute of Pisa, with the support of the Telethon Foundation, of the Fondation Jerome Lejeune and of the FOXG1 Research Foundation.