The c-Jun N-terminal kinases (JNK) belong to the subfamily of mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPK). JNK is an important signaling enzyme that is involved in many facets of cellular regulation including gene expression, cell proliferation and programmed cell death. Activation of JNK isoforms (JNK1, 2, and 3) is regarded as a molecular switch in stress signal transduction. The activation of JNK pathways is also critical for pathological death associated with neurodegenerative diseases. Considering that a variety of stressors activate JNK, it is surprising that the role of hippocampal JNK in memory and synaptic plasticity has not yet been systematically investigated. Here we summarize the emerging evidence for the functions of hippocampal JNK in memory and synaptic plasticity, including our recent demonstration that JNK isoforms play critical roles in regulation of contextual fear conditioning under stressful and baseline conditions. We postulate that sustained activation of the hippocampal JNK2 and JNK3 pathways is involved in the initial stress response that ultimately leads to deficits in memory and long-term potentiation, whereas transient JNK1 activation regulates baseline contextual fear conditioning. Results obtained within the framework of our recent findings will be used for future work, which will differentiate mechanisms underlying beneficial short-term JNK action from prolonged JNK activation that may lead to memory deficits and neurodegeneration.
©2011 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin Boston