Protein Build-Up Leads to Neurons Misfiring
Imaging technique offers novel way to monitor neurodegenerative disorders in live animal models of Parkinson’s disease
Using a two-photon microscope capable of peering deep within living tissue, researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have found new evidence that alpha-synuclein protein build-up inside neurons causes them to not only become “leaky,” but also to misfire due to calcium fluxes.
The findings – the first recorded in vivo using a transgenic mouse model of Parkinson’s disease – are published in the July 18 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience and provide new insights into how Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders known as synucleinopathies work and progress at the cellular level.
Previous in vitro studies using cell cultures had suggested abnormal accumulation of alpha-synuclein dysregulated intracellular handling and movement of calcium, which is used as a signaling molecule and neurotransmitter. It was unclear, however, whether calcium alterations occurred in more complex, living animals.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to verify the role of alpha-synuclein aggregates in vivo,” said senior author Eliezer Masliah, MD, professor of neurosciences and pathology.
“The aggregates affect the cell membrane of neurons, making them more porous. They also affect the membranes of organelles inside neurons, such as the mitochondria that are part of the cell’s machinery for generating energy. Energy is necessary to pump calcium in and out of the cell. If mitochondria membranes are compromised, calcium accumulates, further damaging the neuron and causing it to misfire.”
A human neuron. UC San Diego scientists have identified a pair of proteins that help clear away other misfolded proteins responsible for the progressive degeneration of brain cells in Huntington’s disease.
Two Proteins Offer a “Clearer” Way to Treat Huntington’s Disease
Pair helps remove and prevent misfolding of proteins that cause neurodegeneration
In a paper published in the July 11 online issue of Science Translational Medicine, researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have identified two key regulatory proteins critical to clearing away misfolded proteins that accumulate and cause the progressive, deadly neurodegeneration of Huntington’s disease (HD).
The findings explain a fundamental aspect of how HD wreaks havoc within cells and provides “clear, therapeutic opportunities,” said principal investigator Albert R. La Spada, MD, PhD, professor of cellular and molecular medicine, chief of the Division of Genetics in the Department of Pediatrics and associate director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine at UC San Diego.
“We think the implications are significant,” said La Spada. “It’s a lead we can vigorously pursue, not just for Huntington’s disease, but also for similar neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s disease and maybe even Alzheimer’s disease.”
In HD, an inherited mutation in the huntingtin (htt) gene results in misfolded htt proteins accumulating in certain central nervous system cells, leading to progressive deterioration of involuntary movement control, cognitive decline and psychological problems. More than 30,000 Americans have HD. There are no effective treatments currently to either cure the disease or slow its progression.
La Spada and colleagues focused on a protein called PGC-1alpha, which helps regulate the creation and operation of mitochondria, the tiny organelles that generate the fuel required for every cell to function.
“It’s all about energy,” La Spada said. “Neurons have a constant, high demand for it. They’re always on the edge for maintaining adequate levels of energy production. PGC-1alpha regulates the function of transcription factors that promote the creation of mitochondria and allow them to run at full capacity.”
Previous studies by La Spada and others discovered that the mutant form of the htt gene interfered with normal levels and functioning of PGC-1alpha. “This study confirms that,” La Spada said. More surprising was the discovery that elevated levels of PGC-1alpha in a mouse model of HD virtually eliminated the problematic misfolded proteins.