BMC genomics

Memory acquisition and retrieval impact different epigenetic processes that regulate gene expression.

PMID 26040834


A fundamental question in neuroscience is how memories are stored and retrieved in the brain. Long-term memory formation requires transcription, translation and epigenetic processes that control gene expression. Thus, characterizing genome-wide the transcriptional changes that occur after memory acquisition and retrieval is of broad interest and importance. Genome-wide technologies are commonly used to interrogate transcriptional changes in discovery-based approaches. Their ability to increase scientific insight beyond traditional candidate gene approaches, however, is usually hindered by batch effects and other sources of unwanted variation, which are particularly hard to control in the study of brain and behavior. We examined genome-wide gene expression after contextual conditioning in the mouse hippocampus, a brain region essential for learning and memory, at all the time-points in which inhibiting transcription has been shown to impair memory formation. We show that most of the variance in gene expression is not due to conditioning and that by removing unwanted variance through additional normalization we are able provide novel biological insights. In particular, we show that genes downregulated by memory acquisition and retrieval impact different functions: chromatin assembly and RNA processing, respectively. Levels of histone 2A variant H2AB are reduced only following acquisition, a finding we confirmed using quantitative proteomics. On the other hand, splicing factor Rbfox1 and NMDA receptor-dependent microRNA miR-219 are only downregulated after retrieval, accompanied by an increase in protein levels of miR-219 target CAMKIIγ. We provide a thorough characterization of coding and non-coding gene expression during long-term memory formation. We demonstrate that unwanted variance dominates the signal in transcriptional studies of learning and memory and introduce the removal of unwanted variance through normalization as a necessary step for the analysis of genome-wide transcriptional studies in the context of brain and behavior. We show for the first time that histone variants are downregulated after memory acquisition, and splicing factors and microRNAs after memory retrieval. Our results provide mechanistic insights into the molecular basis of cognition by highlighting the differential involvement of epigenetic mechanisms, such as histone variants and post-transcriptional RNA regulation, after acquisition and retrieval of memory.