Neurofibromin, the neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) gene product, contains a central domain homologous to a family of proteins known as Ras-GTPase-activating proteins (Ras-GAPs), which function as negative regulators of Ras. The loss of neurofibromin function has been thought to be implicated in the abnormal regulation of Ras in NF1-related pathogenesis. In this study, we found a novel role of neurofibromin in neuronal differentiation in conjunction with the regulation of Ras activity via its GAP-related domain (GRD) in neuronal cells. In PC12 cells, time-dependent increases in the GAP activity of cellular neurofibromin (NF1-GAP) were detected after NGF stimulation, which were correlated with the down-regulation of Ras activity during neurite elongation. Interestingly, the NF1-GAP increase was due to the induction of alternative splicing of NF1-GRD type I triggered by the NGF-induced Ras activation. Dominant-negative (DN) forms of NF1-GRD type I significantly inhibited the neurite extension of PC12 cells via regulation of the Ras state. NF1-GRD-DN also reduced axonal and dendritic branching/extension of rat embryonic hippocampal neurons. These results demonstrate that the mutual regulation of Ras and NF1-GAP is essential for normal neuronal differentiation and that abnormal regulation in neuronal cells may be implicated in NF1-related learning and memory disturbance.
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