GABA is the key inhibitory neurotransmitter in the cortex but regulation of its synthesis during forebrain development is poorly understood. In the telencephalon, members of the distal-less (Dlx) homeobox gene family are expressed in, and regulate the development of, the basal ganglia primodia from which many GABAergic neurons originate and migrate to other forebrain regions. The Dlx1/Dlx2 double knock-out mice die at birth with abnormal cortical development, including loss of tangential migration of GABAergic inhibitory interneurons to the neocortex (Anderson et al., 1997a). We have discovered that specific promoter regulatory elements of glutamic acid decarboxylase isoforms (Gad1 and Gad2), which regulate GABA synthesis from the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, are direct transcriptional targets of both DLX1 and DLX2 homeoproteins in vivo. Further gain- and loss-of-function studies in vitro and in vivo demonstrated that both DLX1 and DLX2 are necessary and sufficient for Gad gene expression. DLX1 and/or DLX2 activated the transcription of both Gad genes, and defects in Dlx function disrupted the differentiation of GABAergic interneurons with global reduction in GABA levels in the forebrains of the Dlx1/Dlx2 double knock-out mouse in vivo. Identification of Gad genes as direct Dlx transcriptional targets is significant; it extends our understanding of Dlx gene function in the developing forebrain beyond the regulation of tangential interneuron migration to the differentiation of GABAergic interneurons arising from the basal telencephalon, and may help to unravel the pathogenesis of several developmental brain disorders.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. We show that Dlx1/Dlx2 homeobox genes regulate GABA synthesis during forebrain development through direct activation of glutamic acid decarboxylase enzyme isoforms that convert glutamate to GABA. This discovery helps explain how Dlx mutations result in abnormal forebrain development, due to defective differentiation, in addition to the loss of tangential migration of GABAergic inhibitory interneurons to the neocortex. Reduced numbers or function of cortical GABAergic neurons may lead to hyperactivity states such as seizures (Cobos et al., 2005) or contribute to the pathogenesis of some autism spectrum disorders. GABAergic dysfunction in the basal ganglia could disrupt the learning and development of complex motor and cognitive behaviors (Rubenstein and Merzenich, 2003).

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