The aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) is a ligand-activated transcription factor that mediates the toxicity of dioxin and serves multiple developmental roles. In the adult brain, while we now localize AhR mRNA to nestin-expressing neural progenitor cells in the dentate gyrus (DG) of the hippocampus, its function is unknown. This study tested the hypothesis that AhR participates in hippocampal neurogenesis and associated functions. AhR deletion and activation by the potent environmental toxicant, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), adversely impacted neurogenesis and cognition. Adult AhR-deficient mice exhibited impaired hippocampal-dependent contextual fear memory while hippocampal-independent memory remained intact. AhR-deficient mice displayed reduced cell birth, decreased cell survival, and diminished neuronal differentiation in the DG. Following TCDD exposure, wild-type mice exhibited impaired hippocampal-dependent contextual memory, decreased cell birth, reduced neuronal differentiation, and fewer mature neurons in the DG. Glial differentiation and apoptosis were not altered in either TCDD-exposed or AhR-deficient mice. Finally, defects observed in TCDD-exposed mice were dependent on AhR, as TCDD had no negative effects in AhR-deficient mice. Our findings suggest that AhR should be further evaluated as a potential transcriptional regulator of hippocampal neurogenesis and function, although other sites of action may also warrant consideration. Moreover, TCDD exposure should be considered as an environmental risk factor that disrupts adult neurogenesis and potentially related memory processes.
© 2012 International Society for Neurochemistry.