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Bcl-xL Is Essential for the Survival and Function of Differentiated Neurons in the Cortex That Control Complex Behaviors.



Apoptosis plays an essential role during brain development, yet the precise mechanism by which this pathway is regulated in the brain remains unknown. In particular, mammalian cells are known to express multiple anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 family proteins. However, the cells of the developing brain could also exist in a primed state in which the loss of a single anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 family protein is sufficient to trigger apoptosis. Here, we examined the critical role of Bcl-xL, an anti-apoptotic protein, during brain development. Using conditional knock-out mice in which Bcl-xL is deleted in neural progenitor cells (Bcl-xL(Emx1-Cre)), we show that the loss of Bcl-xL is not sufficient to trigger apoptosis in these proliferating progenitors. In contrast, specific populations of postmitotic neurons derived from these progenitors, including upper layer cortical neurons and the CA1-CA3 regions of the hippocampus, were acutely dependent on Bcl-xL. Consistent with this finding, deletion of Bcl-xL selectively in the postmitotic neurons in the brain (Bcl-xL(Nex-Cre)) also resulted in similar patterns of apoptosis. This Bcl-xL deficiency-induced neuronal death was a consequence of activation of the apoptotic pathway, because the cell death was rescued with codeletion of the proapoptotic proteins Bax and Bak. Importantly, the loss of these Bcl-xL-dependent neurons led to severe neurobehavioral abnormalities, including deficits in motor learning, hyperactivity, and increased risk-taking and self-injurious behaviors. Together, our results identify a population of neurons in the developing brain that are acutely dependent on Bcl-xL during the peak period of synaptic connectivity that are important for the establishment of higher-order complex behaviors.

Significance statement

Although Bcl-xL is known to inhibit apoptosis, exactly which cells in the brain are dependent on Bcl-xL has remained unclear because of the embryonic lethality of mice globally deleted for Bcl-xL. Here, we conditionally deleted Bcl-xL in the brain and found that this did not result in widespread apoptosis in the proliferating progenitors. Instead, Bcl-xL deficiency induced apoptosis in a select population of differentiated neurons predominantly in the early postnatal stages. Importantly, these Bcl-xL-dependent neurons are not essential for survival of the organism but instead regulate complex behaviors. Our results show that the selective loss of these Bcl-xL-dependent neurons results in mice exhibiting severe neurobehavioral abnormalities, including self-injurious and risk-taking behaviors, hyperactivity, and learning and memory defects.

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