Expanding the memory reservoir

In the adult mouse brain, a protein called Klf9 dictates the size of the stem cell pool involved in forming new memories.

Image shows two radial glial-like neural stem cells (green) – one mother cell and one daughter cell – residing in a layer of neurons (blue) of the adult hippocampus. Image credit: Nannan Guo (CC BY 4.0)

In humans and other mammals, a region of the brain known as the hippocampus plays important roles in memory. New experiences guide cells in the hippocampus known as radial-glial neural stem cells (RGLs) to divide to make new neurons and other types of cells involved in forming memories.

Each time an RGL divides, it can choose to divide asymmetrically to maintain a copy of itself and make a new cell of another type, or divide symmetrically (a process known as symmetric self-renewal) to produce two RGLs. Symmetric self-renewal helps to restore and replenish the pool of stem cells in the hippocampus that are lost due to injury or age, allowing us to continue making new neurons.

Proteins known as transcription factors are believed to control how RGLs divide. Previous studies have identified several transcription factors that regulate the RGLs splitting asymmetrically to make neurons and other cells. But the identities of the transcription factors that regulate symmetric self-renewal in the adult hippocampus have remained elusive.

Here, Guo et al. searched for transcription factors that regulate symmetric self-renewal of RGLs in mice. The experiments found that RGLs that are resting and not dividing (referred to as ‘quiescent’) have higher levels of a transcription factor called Klf9 than RGLs that are actively dividing. Loss of the gene encoding Klf9 triggered quiescent RGLs to start dividing, and further experiments showed that Klf9 directly inhibited symmetric self-renewal. Guo et al. then used an approach called in vivo translational profiling to generate a blueprint that revealed new insights into the molecular processes involved in this symmetric division.

These findings pave the way for researchers to develop strategies that may expand the numbers of stem cells in the hippocampus. This could eventually be used to help replenish brain circuits with neurons and improve the memory of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or other conditions that cause memory loss.