During brain development, billions of neurons organize into highly specific circuits. To form specific circuits, neurons must build the appropriate types of synapses with appropriate types of synaptic partners while avoiding incorrect partners in a dense cellular environment. Defining the cellular and molecular rules that govern specific circuit formation has significant scientific and clinical relevance because fine scale connectivity defects are thought to underlie many cognitive and psychiatric disorders. Organizing specific neural circuits is an enormously complicated developmental process that requires the concerted action of many molecules, neural activity, and temporal events. This review focuses on one class of molecules postulated to play an important role in target selection and specific synapse formation: the classic cadherins. Cadherins have a well-established role in epithelial cell adhesion, and although it has long been appreciated that most cadherins are expressed in the brain, their role in synaptic specificity is just beginning to be unraveled. Here, we review past and present studies implicating cadherins as active participants in the formation, function, and dysfunction of specific neural circuits and pose some of the major remaining questions.
Keywords: ADHD, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder; BC, bipolar cell; DG, dentate gyrus; DN-cadherin, Drosophila N-cadherin; EC, extracellular cadherin; EGF, epidermal growth factor.; RGCs, retinal ganglion cells; SNPs, single nucleotide polymorphisms; classic cadherins; cognitive disorders; molecular identity; synaptic specificity.