Central Nervous System Functions of PAK Protein Family: From Spine Morphogenesis to Mental Retardation

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Several of the genes currently known to be associated, when mutated, with mental retardation, code for molecules directly involved in Rho guanosine triphosphatase (GTPase) signaling. These include PAK3, a member of the PAK protein kinase family, which are important effectors of small GTPases. In many systems, PAK kinases play crucial roles regulating complex mechanisms such as cell migration, differentiation, or survival. Their precise functions in the central nervous system remain, however, unclear. Although their activity does not seem to be required for normal brain development, several recent studies point to a possible involvement in more subtle mechanisms such as neurite outgrowth, spine morphogenesis or synapse formation, and plasticity. This article reviews this information in the light of the current knowledge available on the molecular characteristics of the different members of this family and discuss the mechanisms through which they might contribute to cognitive functions.

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