Mapping gene expression to function in adult mouse medial entorhinal cortex
Ramsden, Helen Lucy
Deciphering the mechanisms that underlie circuit function in the hippocampal formation is a key challenge for neuroscience. This region, which includes the medial entorhinal cortex (MEC), is critical for spatial learning and episodic memory in humans. Spatially modulated cells in the MEC, the grid cells, provide a topographical representation of space, but we are yet to establish the neuronal properties that underlie this or the contribution that particular cells in different regions of the MEC and hippocampus make to circuit function. This is partially because the specific targeting of the network with genetic tools is complicated by a multitude of cell types with predominantly unknown molecular profiles. To address our limited understanding of the molecular organisation of the MEC, I have characterised how the expression of genes is distributed throughout different layers of the MEC, using a custom-designed resource that facilitates analysis of in situ hybridisation data from the Allen Brain Atlas. Through simultaneous extraction of gene expression data across thousands of 2D aligned images, I reveal striking differences between layers within MEC, demonstrating that layer II contains the highest proportion of genes enriched in a single layer, whereas gene expression is very rarely confined to layer III. Of particular interest, layer II of MEC is highly enriched for Alzheimer’s disease pathway genes, providing insight into its vulnerability as one of the first brain regions to show pathology. I also identify over 1000 genes that are expressed with a dorso-ventral gradient that maps onto the topographic organisation of MEC connectivity, grid cell spatial resolution and synaptic integrative properties of cells. An intriguing group of genes that closely relate circuit activity to gene expression, the plasticity-related activity-dependent genes, often show this pattern of expression. Focussing on the activity-dependent expression of one such activity-regulated, plasticity-related gene, Arc, I provide a novel view of MEC function. During simple novel exploration, Arc expression is up-regulated to a much greater extent in the deep layers of dorsal MEC than in the grid cell-rich superficial layers. By selectively disrupting the predominant hippocampal input to dorsal MEC, which terminates in the deep layers, I show that the significance of this up-regulation is independent of hippocampal inputs. Thus, although research addressing MEC function is particularly focussed on the superficial layers, during the exploratory behaviour that potentially primes the system for representing an environment, important plasticity may be occurring at the synapses onto deep layer neurons. In summary, my investigations of baseline and activity-dependent gene expression in MEC have revealed a molecular organisation both across different layers and along a functionally relevant gradient. This may be important for specifically targeting microcircuits in MEC and for characterising how laminar and regional differences contribute to the encoding of space in the hippocampal formation.