• Neural stem cells;
  • Cellular mechanotransduction;
  • Rho GTP-binding proteins;
  • Adipose stem cells;
  • Extracellular matrix;
  • Elastic modulus


Adult neural stem cells (NSCs) play important roles in learning and memory and are negatively impacted by neurological disease. It is known that biochemical and genetic factors regulate self-renewal and differentiation, and it has recently been suggested that mechanical and solid-state cues, such as extracellular matrix (ECM) stiffness, can also regulate the functions of NSCs and other stem cell types. However, relatively little is known of the molecular mechanisms through which stem cells transduce mechanical inputs into fate decisions, the extent to which mechanical inputs instruct fate decisions versus select for or against lineage-committed blast populations, or the in vivo relevance of mechanotransductive signaling molecules in native stem cell niches. Here we demonstrate that ECM-derived mechanical signals act through Rho GTPases to activate the cellular contractility machinery in a key early window during differentiation to regulate NSC lineage commitment. Furthermore, culturing NSCs on increasingly stiff ECMs enhances RhoA and Cdc42 activation, increases NSC stiffness, and suppresses neurogenesis. Likewise, inhibiting RhoA and Cdc42 or downstream regulators of cellular contractility rescues NSCs from stiff matrix- and Rho GTPase-induced neurosuppression. Importantly, Rho GTPase expression and ECM stiffness do not alter proliferation or apoptosis rates indicating that an instructive rather than selective mechanism modulates lineage distributions. Finally, in the adult brain, RhoA activation in hippocampal progenitors suppresses neurogenesis, analogous to its effect in vitro. These results establish Rho GTPase-based mechanotransduction and cellular stiffness as biophysical regulators of NSC fate in vitro and RhoA as an important regulatory protein in the hippocampal stem cell niche. STEM CELLS 2011;29:1886–1897