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High phenylalanine concentrations in the brain due to dysfunctional phenylalanine hydroxylase (Pah) are considered to account for mental retardation in phenylketonuria (PKU). In this study, we treated hippocampal cultures with the amino acid in order to determine the role of elevated levels of phenylalanine in PKU-related mental retardation. Synapse density and dendritic length were dramatically reduced in hippocampal cultures treated with phenylalanine. Changes in cofilin expression and phosphorylation status, which were restored by NMDA, as well as reduced activation of the small GTPase Rac1, likely underlie these structural alterations. In the Pahenu2 mouse, which carries a mutated Pah gene, we previously found higher synaptic density due to delayed synaptic pruning in response to insufficient microglia function. Microglia activity and C3 complement expression, both of which were reduced in the Pahenu2 mouse, however, were unaffected in hippocampal cultures treated with phenylalanine. The lack of a direct effect of phenylalanine on microglia is the key to the opposite effects regarding synapse stability in vitro and in the Pahenu2 mouse. Judging from our data, it appears that another player is required for the inactivation of microglia in the Pahenu2 mouse, rather than high concentrations of phenylalanine alone. Altogether, the data underscore the necessity of a lifelong phenylalanine-restricted diet.Elevated phenylalanine reduces synapse density in hippocampal slice cultures.Phenylalanine influences dendritic branching in dissociated neurons.Phenylalanine has no influence on Iba1 protein and phagocytosis efficacy in vitro.Physiologically, complement component C3 mRNA levels increase during development.No increase in C3 mRNA in the Pahenu2 mouse but compensatory upregulated protein.