An epigenetic mechanism mediates developmental nicotine effects on neuronal structure and behavior

Nat Neurosci. 2016 Jul;19(7):905-14. doi: 10.1038/nn.4315. Epub 2016 May 30.


Developmental nicotine exposure causes persistent changes in cortical neuron morphology and in behavior. We used microarray screening to identify master transcriptional or epigenetic regulators mediating these effects of nicotine and discovered increases in Ash2l mRNA, encoding a component of a histone methyltransferase complex. We therefore examined genome-wide changes in trimethylation of histone H3 on Lys4 (H3K4me3), a mark induced by the Ash2l complex associated with increased gene transcription. A large proportion of regulated promoter sites were involved in synapse maintenance. We found that Mef2c interacts with Ash2l and mediates changes in H3K4me3. Knockdown of Ash2l or Mef2c abolished nicotine-mediated alterations of dendritic complexity in vitro and in vivo, and attenuated nicotine-dependent changes in passive avoidance behavior. In contrast, overexpression mimicked nicotine-mediated alterations of neuronal structure and passive avoidance behavior. These studies identify Ash2l as a target induced by nicotinic stimulation that couples developmental nicotine exposure to changes in brain epigenetic marks, neuronal structure and behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / genetics*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / drug effects*
  • Histone-Lysine N-Methyltransferase / genetics*
  • Histones / metabolism
  • Methylation / drug effects
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Nicotine / pharmacology*
  • Nuclear Proteins / genetics*
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic / genetics*
  • Transcription Factors / genetics*


  • ASH2L protein, human
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • Histones
  • Nuclear Proteins
  • Transcription Factors
  • Nicotine
  • Histone-Lysine N-Methyltransferase