Date of Award

Spring 2023

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Xuanmao Chen

Second Advisor

Feixia Chu

Third Advisor

Rick Cote


Primary cilia are microtubule-based cellular antennae present in most vertebrate cells including neurons. Neuronal primary cilia have abundant expression of G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) and downstream cAMP signaling components such as type 3 adenylyl cyclase (AC3). The deflects of neuronal cilia is associated with many memory-related disorders, such as intellectual disability. Thus far, little is known about how neuronal primary cilia regulate neuronal activity and affect hippocampal memory formation. Episodic memory is thought to be encoded by sparsely distributed memory-eligible neurons in the hippocampus and neocortex. However, it is not clear how memory-eligible neurons interact with one another to form and retrieve a memory. The objectives of my dissertation are to determine the roles of AC3 in regulating cortical protein phosphorylation, to examine the cellular mechanism of episodic memory formation, and to examine how neuronal primary cilia regulate trace fear memory formation.

Project 1: Compare protein phosphorylation levels in the prefrontal cortex between AC3 knockout (KO) and wildtype (WT) mice. AC3 represents a key enzyme mediating ciliary cAMP signaling in neurons and is genetically associated with major depressive disorder (MDD) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The major downstream effector protein of cAMP in cells is protein kinase A (PKA), whose activation leads to the phosphorylation of numerous proteins to propagate the signaling downstream. In my mass spectrometry-based phosphoproteomic study using conditional AC3 KO mice, I identified thousands of peptides from prefrontal cortical tissues, some of which are differentially phosphorylated in AC3 WT and KO samples. In addition, this effort led to identification of over two hundred proteins, whose phosphorylation were sex-biased. Surprisingly, a high percentage of these targets (31%) are autism-associated proteins/genes. Hence, this study provides the first phosphoproteomic evidence suggesting that sex-biased protein phosphorylation may contribute to the sexual dimorphism of autism.

Project 2: Investigate how hippocampal neurons are recruited to interact with each other to encode a trace fear memory. Using in vivo calcium imaging in freely behaving mice, I found that a small portion of highly active hippocampal neurons (termed primed neurons) are actively engaged in memory formation and retrieval. I found that induction of activity synchronization among primed neurons from random dynamics is critical for trace memory formation and retrieval. My work has provided direct in vivo evidence to challenge the long-held paradigm that activation and re-activation of memory cells encodes and retrieves memory, respectively. These findings support a new mechanistic model for associative memory formation, in that primed neurons connect with each other to forge a new circuit, bridging a conditional stimulus with an unconditional stimulus.

Project 3: Develop an analytical method to identify primed neurons and determine the roles of neuronal primary cilia on hippocampal neuronal priming and trace memory formation. Neuronal primary cilia are “cellular antennae” which sense and transduce extracellular signals into neuronal soma. However, to date little is known about how neuronal primary cilia influence neuronal functions and hippocampal memory. I utilized conditional Ift88 knockout mice (to ablate cilia) as loss-of-function models. I found that inducible conditional Ift88 KOs display more severe learning deficits compared to their littermate controls. Cilia-ablated mice showed reduced overall neuronal activity, decreased number of primed neurons, and failed to form burst synchronization. These data support the conclusion that alteration of neuronal primary cilia impairs trace fear memory by decreasing hippocampal neuronal priming and the formation of burst synchronization. This study also provides evidence to support the importance of burst synchronization among primed neurons on memory formation and retrieval.