General or brain-region-specific decreases in spine number or morphology accompany major neuropsychiatric disorders. It is unclear, however, whether changes in spine density are specific for an individual mental process or disorder and, if so, which molecules confer such specificity. Here we identify the scaffolding protein IQGAP1 as a key regulator of dendritic spine number with a specific role in cognitive but not emotional or motivational processes. We show that IQGAP1 is an important component of NMDAR multiprotein complexes and functionally interacts with the NR2A subunits and the extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1 (ERK1) and ERK2 signaling pathway. Mice lacking the IQGAP1 gene exhibited significantly lower levels of surface NR2A and impaired ERK activity compared to their wild-type littermates. Accordingly, primary hippocampal cultures of IQGAP1 neurons exhibited reduced surface expression of NR2A and disrupted ERK signaling in response to NR2A-dependent NMDAR stimulation. These molecular changes were accompanied by region-specific reductions of dendritic spine density in key brain areas involved in cognition, emotion, and motivation. IQGAP1 knockouts exhibited marked long-term memory deficits accompanied by impaired hippocampal long-term potentiation (LTP) in a weak cellular learning model; in contrast, LTP was unaffected when induced with stronger stimulation paradigms. Anxiety- and depressionlike behavior remained intact. On the basis of these findings, we propose that a dysfunctional IQGAP1 gene contributes to the cognitive deficits in brain disorders characterized by fewer dendritic spines.
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