Activity-dependent changes in gene expression involving the transcription factor cAMP-response element-binding protein (CREB) occur in learning and memory, pain, and drug addiction. This mechanism may also be important for cytomegaloviral infections of the brain. The human cytomegalovirus major immediate-early promoter/enhancer (hCMV promoter), rate-limiting for productive cytomegalovirus infection, contains five cAMP-response elements (CREs). Indirect evidence suggests that this promoter does not function in unstimulated neurons. Here we test the hypothesis that expression from the hCMV promoter in neurons is induced by membrane depolarization. For these experiments, we infected cultured sympathetic and hippocampal neurons with hCMV-green fluorescent protein (GFP) promoter/reporter constructs using adenoviral gene transfer techniques and measured transgene expression by quantifying GFP fluorescence and GFP mRNA levels. We found that depolarization up-regulates promoter activity by >90-fold. Moreover, our results from pharmacological experiments suggest that this induction occurred through a CREB-dependent pathway. Importantly, site-directed mutagenesis of all five CREs in the promoter blocked this up-regulation almost completely, whereas mutating four of them had no effect. We conclude that the hCMV promoter acts as a molecular switch in neurons and is strongly induced by membrane depolarization, neuronal activity, or other stimuli that activate CREB. These results may provide insight into molecular mechanisms of cytomegalovirus-related diseases of the brain.
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