If mRNAs were the only RNAs made by a neuron, there would be a simple mapping of mRNAs to proteins. However, microRNAs and other non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs; endo-siRNAs, piRNAs, BC1, BC200, antisense and long ncRNAs, repeat-related transcripts, etc.) regulate mRNAs via effects on protein translation as well as transcriptional and epigenetic mechanisms. Not only are genes ON or OFF, but their ability to be translated can be turned ON or OFF at the level of synapses, supporting an enormous increase in information capacity. Here, I review evidence that ncRNAs are expressed pervasively within dendrites in mammalian brain; that some are activity-dependent and highly enriched near synapses; and that synaptic ncRNAs participate in plasticity responses including learning and memory. Ultimately, ncRNAs can be viewed as the post-it notes of the neuron. They have no literal meaning of their own, but derive their functions from where (and to what) they are stuck. This may explain, in part, why ncRNAs differ so dramatically from protein-coding genes, both in terms of the usual indicators of functionality and in terms of evolutionary constraints. ncRNAs do not appear to be direct mediators of synaptic transmission in the manner of neurotransmitters or receptors, yet they orchestrate synaptic plasticity—and may drive species-specific changes in cognition.
One contribution of 19 to a Theme Issue ‘Epigenetic information-processing mechanisms in the brain’.
© 2014 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.