Ubiquitin C-terminal hydrolase L1 (UCH-L1) is a deubiquitinating enzyme that is selectively and abundantly expressed in the brain, and its activity is required for normal synaptic function. Here, we show that UCH-L1 functions in maintaining normal synaptic structure in hippocampal neurons. We found that UCH-L1 activity is rapidly upregulated by NMDA receptor activation, which leads to an increase in the levels of free monomeric ubiquitin. Conversely, pharmacological inhibition of UCH-L1 significantly reduces monomeric ubiquitin levels and causes dramatic alterations in synaptic protein distribution and spine morphology. Inhibition of UCH-L1 activity increases spine size while decreasing spine density. Furthermore, there is a concomitant increase in the size of presynaptic and postsynaptic protein clusters. Interestingly, however, ectopic expression of ubiquitin restores normal synaptic structure in UCH-L1-inhibited neurons. These findings point to a significant role of UCH-L1 in synaptic remodeling, most likely by modulating free monomeric ubiquitin levels in an activity-dependent manner.
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