BACKGROUND: Stress involves alterations of brain functioning that may precipitate to mood disorders. The neurotrophin Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) has recently been involved in stress-induced adaptation. BDNF is a key regulator of neuronal plasticity and adaptive processes. Regulation of BDNF is complex and may reflect not only stress-specific mechanisms but also hormonal and emotional responses. For this reason we used, as an animal model of stress, a fish whose brain organization is very similar to that of higher vertebrates, but is generally considered free of emotional reactions. RESULTS: We provide a comprehensive characterization of BDNF gene in the Dicentrarchus labrax and its transcriptional, translational and post-translational regulation following acute stress. While total BDNF mRNA levels are unchanged, BDNF transcripts 1c and 1d resulted down regulated after acute stress. Acute stress induces also a significant increase in proBDNF levels and reduction in mature BDNF suggesting altered regulation of proBDNF proteolytic processing. Notably, we provide here the first evidence that fishes possess a simplified proteolytic regulation of BDNF since the pro28Kda form, generated by the SKI-1 protease in mammals, is absent in fishes because the cleavage site has first emerged in reptilians. Finally, we show that the proBDNF/totBDNF ratio is a highly predictive novel quantitative biomarker to detect stress in fishes with sensitivity = 100%, specificity = 87%, and Negative Predictive Value = 100%. CONCLUSION: The high predictivity of proBDNF/totBDNF ratio for stress in lower vertebrates indicates that processing of BDNF is a central mechanism in adaptation to stress and predicts that a similar regulation of pro/mature BDNF has likely been conserved throughout evolution of vertebrates from fish to man.
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