Synapses are specialized cell-cell contacts that mediate communication between neurons. Most excitatory synapses in the brain are housed on dendritic spines, small actin-rich protrusions extending from dendrites. During development and in response to environmental stimuli, spines undergo marked changes in shape and number thought to underlie processes like learning and memory. Improper spine development, in contrast, likely impedes information processing in the brain, since spine abnormalities are associated with numerous brain disorders. Elucidating the mechanisms that regulate the formation and plasticity of spines and their resident synapses is therefore crucial to our understanding of cognition and disease. Rho-family GTPases, key regulators of the actin cytoskeleton, play essential roles in orchestrating the development and remodeling of spines and synapses. Precise spatio-temporal regulation of Rho GTPase activity is critical for their function, since aberrant Rho GTPase signaling can cause spine and synapse defects as well as cognitive impairments. Rho GTPases are activated by guanine nucleotide exchange factors (GEFs) and inhibited by GTPase-activating proteins (GAPs). We propose that Rho-family GEFs and GAPs provide the spatiotemporal regulation and signaling specificity necessary for proper Rho GTPase function based on the following features they possess: (i) existence of multiple GEFs and GAPs per Rho GTPase, (ii) developmentally regulated expression, (iii) discrete localization, (iv) ability to bind to and organize specific signaling networks, and (v) tightly regulated activity, perhaps involving GEF/GAP interactions. Recent studies describe several Rho-family GEFs and GAPs that uniquely contribute to spinogenesis and synaptogenesis. Here, we highlight several of these proteins and discuss how they occupy distinct biochemical niches critical for synaptic development.
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