Aged dominant negative p38α MAPK mice are resistant to age-dependent decline in adult-neurogenesis and context discrimination fear conditioning

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A major aspect of mammalian aging is the decline in functional competence of many self-renewing cell types, including adult-born neuronal precursors. Since age-related senescence of self-renewal occurs simultaneously with chronic up-regulation of the p38MAPKalpha (p38α) signaling pathway, we used the dominant negative mouse model for attenuated p38α activity (DN-p38αAF/+) in which Thr180 and Tyr182 are mutated (T → A/Y → F) to prevent phosphorylation activation (DN-p38αAF/+) and kinase activity. As a result, aged DN-p38αAF/+ mice are resistant to age-dependent decline in proliferation and regeneration of several peripheral tissue progenitors when compared to wild-type littermates.

Aging is the major risk factor for non-inherited forms of Alzheimer's disease (AD); environmental and genetic risk factors that accelerate the senescence phenotype are thought to contribute to an individual's relative risk. In the present study, we evaluated aged DN-p38αAF/+ and wildtype littermates in a series of behavioral paradigms to test if p38α mutant mice exhibit altered baseline abnormalities in neurological reflexes, locomotion, anxiety-like behavior, and age-dependent cognitive decline. While aged DN-p38αAF/+ and wildtype littermates appear equal in all tested baseline neurological and behavioral parameters, DN-p38αAF/+ exhibit superior context discrimination fear conditioning. Context discrimination is a cognitive task that is supported by proliferation and differentiation of adult-born neurons in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. Consistent with enhanced context discrimination in aged DN-p38αAF/+, we discovered enhanced production of adult-born neurons in the dentate gyrus of DN-p38αAF/+ mice compared to wildtype littermates. Our findings support the notion that p38α inhibition has therapeutic utility in aging diseases that affect cognition, such as AD.

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