Mutations in a gene called oligophrenin-1 (OPHN1) – located on the X chromosome – have previously been linked to X-linked intellectual disability (also known as X-linked mental retardation), a condition that affects boys disproportionately and could account for as much as one-fifth of all intellectual disability among males.
Several different mutations in the OPHN1 gene have been identified to date, all of which perturb nerve cells’ manufacture of OPHN1 protein. Previously, Van Aelst and colleagues demonstrated that OPHN1 has a vital role in synaptic plasticity, the process through which adjacent nerve cells adjust the strength of their connections. Cells in the brain are constantly adjusting connection strength as they respond to streams of stimuli.
The new discovery shows how OPHN1 is involved in the trafficking of AMPARs, an essential feature of plasticity in neurons. Neurons move receptors away from synapses into their interior and then back to the surface of synapses to control connection strength. At the synaptic surface, receptors provide an opportunity for the docking of neurotransmitters, in this case glutamate molecules. After a cell has fired, surface receptors are typically brought back into the interior, where they are recycled for future use.