Dendritic spines are the primary sites of excitatory synaptic transmission in the vertebrate brain, and the morphology of these actin-rich structures correlates with synaptic function. Here we demonstrate a unique method for inducing spine enlargement and synaptic potentiation in dispersed hippocampal neurons, and use this technique to identify a coordinator of these processes; Ras-specific guanine nucleotide releasing factor 2 (RasGRF2). RasGRF2 is a dual Ras/Rac guanine nucleotide exchange factor (GEF) that is known to be necessary for long-term potentiation in situ. Contrary to the prevailing assumption, we find RasGRF2's Rac-GEF activity to be essential for synaptic potentiation by using a molecular replacement strategy designed to dissociate Rac- from Ras-GEF activities. Furthermore, we demonstrate that Rac1 activity itself is sufficient to rapidly modulate postsynaptic strength by using a photoactivatable derivative of this small GTPase. Because Rac1 is a major actin regulator, our results support a model where the initial phase of long-term potentiation is driven by the cytoskeleton.
Keywords: AMPA receptor; LTP; Rho GTPase; synaptic plasticity.