A new molecule identified that controls cerebellar communication

Written by Dr. Ambika Tewari Edited by Dr. Sriram Jayabal

Targeting phosphatases in the cerebellum can correct miscommunication in multiple models of ataxia.

The cerebellum is essential for motor coordination and consists of the coordinated activity of different types of cells. Purkinje cells are one of the most fascinating cell types in the cerebellum. They have an elaborate network of branches called dendrites, where a neuron receives communication from other neurons. It is one of the most complex branching systems seen across all neurons in the entire brain. Each one of these branches has many points of contact with other branches called axons. Each axon is part of a neuronal structure that allow communication between neurons. These axons are from different cell types and allow information to be transferred to Purkinje cells.

Colourful illustration of a human brain
Targeting phosphatases in the brain could improve communication between neurons, reducing ataxia symptoms.

Due to this branching complexity, Purkinje cells receive many messages or inputs. This represents different pieces of sensory information to ensure that movements are precisely timed. Purkinje cells must integrate and process this information. This produces motor behaviors like walking, writing, playing a musical instrument, and many more. Any alteration to the processing of this information will result in cerebellum dysfunction; in fact, Purkinje cells have gained attention because they undergo progressive deterioration in most ataxias. 

Neurons, including Purkinje cells, communicate with other neurons using electrical signals known as action potentials or spikes. Firing rate, defined as the number of spikes within a defined period of time, is thought to be an important feature of this communication, which is critical for coordinating muscle movements. Therefore, a lower firing rate in Purkinje cells would signal a faulty communication between Purkinje cells and their targets. This has devastating consequences as seen in many ataxias.

For instance, in an earlier study, a group of authors found that the firing rate of Purkinje cells was decreased in mouse models of three different Spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs): SCA1, SCA2, and SCA5. They further explored whether there was a common reason underlying the decreased firing rate. They found that a protein named Missing in Metastasis (MTSS1), was important for Purkinje cells to effectively communicate with each other. Mice engineered to have no MTSS1 protein had a decreased firing rate and difficulty walking and maintaining their balance.

In every cell in the body, including brain cells, there are numerous proteins that perform different functions. The concerted effort of all are needed for the cell to perform its intended duty. Some of these proteins are maintained in the cell in an inactive form and are activated when they are required in the cell and inhibited when they are not. This highly regulated system aims to maintain precise levels of proteins in each cell, while simultaneously conserving energy. Each cell has many ways of activating/inactivating a protein. A specialized group of proteins known as kinases and phosphatases, adds and removes phosphate groups to and from proteins respectively, thereby altering their active/inactive forms which then changes their interactions with other proteins. MTSS1 is one such protein that inhibits the activity of a group of kinases known as Src family of non-receptor tyrosine kinases (SFKs).

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Discovery of a new molecular pathway in spinocerebellar ataxia 17

Written by Dr. Sriram Jayabal Edited by Dr. Ray Truant

A potential new pathway for SCA17: gene therapy that in mice restores a critical protein deficit protects brain cells from death in SCA17.

Neurodegenerative ataxias are a group of brain disorders that progressively affect one’s ability to make fine coordinated muscular movements. This makes is difficulty for people with ataxia to walk. Spinocerebellar ataxia type 17 (SCA17) is one such late-onset neurological disease which typically manifests at mid-life. The life expectancy after symptoms first appear is approximately 18-20 years. Besides ataxia, SCA17 can cause a number of other symptoms ranging from dementia (loss of memory), psychiatric disorders, dystonia (uncontrollable contraction of muscles), chorea (unpredictable muscle movements), spasticity (tightened muscles), and epilepsy.

Brain imaging and post-mortem studies have identified that the cerebellum (often referred to as the little brain) is one of the primary brain regions that is affected. That being said, other brain regions such as the cerebrum (cortex or the big brain) and brainstem (distal part of the brain found after the cerebellum) could undergo degeneration. Further, the genetic mutation that leads to SCA17, is a CAG-repeat expansion mutation, similar to several other forms of ataxias. In most other ataxias, where the function of the mutated protein is unknown. However in SCA17, the function of the mutated protein, TATA-box binding protein, is very well understood. Despite this unique advantage, we are yet to completely understand how the mutant gene leads to SCA17. This is why current treatment strategies often focus on treating the symptoms, but not the underlying cause.

person holding laboratory flask
Photo by Chokniti Khongchum on Pexels.com

SCA17 mutation leads to Purkinje cell death

Researchers from China have shed more light on how the mutant gene causes SCA17. TATA-box binding protein is a transcription initiation factor is a protein that turns on the production of RNA from genes. It is widely found across the brain including the cerebellum. TATA-box binding protein controls the amount of protein manufactured from several genes. This raised a very important question: pertinent not only to SCA17 but also more generally to several SCAs – why is that the cerebellar neurons, especially the most sensitive neuron, the Purkinje cells die?

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Levels of Capicua may make SCA1 neurodegeneration worse in parts of the brain

Written by Stephanie Coffin Edited by Dr. Brenda Toscano

Ataxin-1 may not be the only protein important in driving neurodegeneration in SCA1

Why does a protein that cause disease only cause toxicity in specific regions of the brain, despite being in all cells of the body?  This is the question authors attempt to answer in this article, with a focus on spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) and the disease causing protein, Ataxin-1.  SCA1 is a polyglutamine expansion disorder, meaning patients with the disease have a CAG repeat in the ATXN1 gene that is larger than that of the healthy population.  This mutant allele is then translated into a mutant protein, causing SCA1.  Ataxin-1 protein is expressed throughout the entire brain, however, toxicity (cell death and problems) is mainly restricted to neurons of the cerebellum and brainstem.  This phenomenon is called “selective vulnerability” and refers to disorders in which a restricted group of neurons degenerate, despite widespread expression of the disease protein.  Selective vulnerability occurs in many diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s disease and is currently under investigation by many scientists in the field of neurodegeneration.

In SCA1, this selective vulnerability can be narrowed further in the cerebellum. The cerebellum is broken down into lobules (I-X), with lobules II-V described as the anterior region and lobules IX-X as the nodular zone. Studies have previously shown cerebellar Purkinje cells to be particularly sensitive to mutant ataxin-1, and within the cerebellum, neurons in the anterior region degenerate faster than those in the nodular zone.  This paper wanted to understand the mechanism of this interesting biology, hypothesizing that there are genes whose are expressed mainly in these zones could correlate with the pattern of Purkinje cell degeneration. To this end, the authors used the mouse model ataxin-1 [82Q], which overexpresses human ataxin-1 with 82 CAG repeats specifically in cerebellar Purkinje cells.

Doctor howing up a scan of the human brain
Why do some parts of the brain degenerate in SCA1, when the disease causing protein is expressed in all pWhy do some regions of the brain degenerate in SCA1, when the disease-causing protein is expressed in all parts of the body? Why don’t other regions show the same signs of disease? This is what researchers sought to find out in this study. Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

First, the authors confirmed the finding that neurons from the anterior region of the cerebellum degenerate earlier than those in the nodular zone.  They did this by assessing the health and number of Purkinje cells, which indeed appeared to be better in the cells located in the nodular zone.  Next, techniques assessing expression of RNA in SCA1 and control cerebellum, showed that there are a number of genes which are uniquely dysregulated in the anterior cerebellum of SCA1 mice.  Neurons function and communicate with each other via ion channels, and interestingly, the genes found to be dysregulated in the anterior cerebellum of SCA1 mice were related to ion channel signaling.

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A promising biomarker to track disease progression in SCA3

Written by Dr. Ambika Tewari Edited by Dr. Gulin Oz

Neurofilament light chain could provide a reliable readout of how far an SCA3 patient’s disease has progressed

How often have you heard that the most effective way to treat a disorder is early intervention? In reality, “early” is not possible for many disorders because patients receive a diagnosis only after the appearance of symptoms. But what if there was a way we could tell that a patient will develop a disease – even before they have any symptoms? Thankfully, that’s exactly what researchers in the field of biomarkers are trying to do. Biomarkers are biological indicators that are not only present in patients before the manifestation of symptoms, but can also be used to measure disease progression. In the SCA field, there have been a recent series of articles that have shed light on a promising biomarker for SCA3.

Spinocerebellar ataxia type 3 (SCA3), also known as Machado-Joseph Disease, is the most common dominantly-inherited ataxia. It is caused by an expansion of CAG repeats (a small segment of DNA that codes for the amino acid glutamine) in the ATXN3 gene. An important feature of SCA3, as well as in other spinocerebellar ataxias, is the progressive development of symptoms. Symptoms usually occur across decades, and can be divided into three major phases: asymptomatic, preclinical, and symptomatic. In the asymptomatic phase, there is no evidence of clinical symptoms (even though the patient has had the SCA-causing mutation since birth). In the preclinical stage, patients show unspecified neurological symptoms such as muscle cramps and/or mild movement abnormalities. By the symptomatic (i.e., clinical) stage, patients have significant difficulty walking.

A Spinal Cord Motor Neuron sample stained purple.
Neurofilament light chain (NfL) is an important building block of neurons. But when neurons are damaged, NfL is released. Image of a spinal cord motor neuron courtesy of Berkshire Community College.

Currently in SCA research, disease progression is measured using the Scale for the Assessment and Rating of Ataxia (SARA). A score of 3 or more on the SARA differentiates clinical and preclinical groups. Structural and functional brain imaging methods (such as MRI) also track the progressive nature of the disease, like the SARA, but give us a visual picture of changes in the brain. Together, these methods have provided the SCA community with important insights into the clinical spectrum of each specific disease and its rate of progression. And, with the exciting progress we have recently made in the realm of SCA3 therapeutics, a biomarker that is cost-effective and easy to measure (like in a blood test) could provide a convenient way to assess how effective a potential treatment is.

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Mutated ataxin-1 protein forms harmful, doughnut-shaped aggregates that are not easily destroyed

Written by Brenda Toscano Marquez   Edited by Marija Cvetanovic

Insoluble clumps of mutated ataxin-1 capture essential proteins and trigger the creation of toxic reactive oxygen species.

All proteins produced by our cells consist of long chains of amino acids that are coiled and bent into a particular 3D structure. Changes in that structure can cause serious issues in a cell’s function, sometimes resulting in disease. Spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) is thought to be the result of one such structural change. The cause of SCA1 is a mutation that makes a repeating section of the ATXIN1 gene abnormally long. This repeated genetic code, “CAG,” is what encodes the amino acid glutamine in the resulting ataxin-1 protein. Therefore, in the cells of patients with SCA1, the Ataxin-1 protein is produced with an expanded string of glutamines, one after the other. This polyglutamine expansion makes the mutated ataxin-1 protein form clumps in many different types of cells – most notably, though, in the cells most affected in SCA1: the brain’s Purkinje cells.

Recent research suggests that these clumps, or “aggregates,” not only take up space in the cell, but that the act of ataxin-1 proteins clustering together might even be beneficial in early stages of disease (it’s possible that the proteins wreak less havoc when they’re in large clumps, rather than all floating around individually). However, another line of research suggests that ataxin-1 aggregates might also be toxic, triggering signals that lead to the cell’s death. As such, how exactly these aggregates affect the deterioration of cells has remained an important question in SCA1 research.

n a search for answers, an international team led by Stamatia Laidou designed a unique cell model of SCA1 to track the development of ataxin-1 aggregates. Their study, published in a recent paper, made use of normal human mesenchymal stem cells that had been engineered to make a modified version of the ataxin-1 protein. In these cells, ataxin-1 was produced not only with the SCA1-causing expansion, but also with a marker protein attached to its end. This marker, known as “green fluorescent protein” (GFP), is used extensively in biological research because it glows under fluorescent light.

doughnut with white and pink sprinkles
Laidou and colleagues have observed mutated ataxin-1 clumps that cause cell stress. Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

Using this to their advantage, Laidou and her team used a fluorescent microscope to follow the formation of ataxin-1 aggregates over the course of 10 days. The abnormal protein first started accumulating in the nucleus as small dots. As time went on, these dots started blending together, increasing in size. By ten days, the ataxin-1 aggregates had grown even more, forming a doughnut-shaped structure that occupied most of the cell’s nucleus – a crucial structure that houses the cell’s genetic information. These results were intriguing, since the accumulation of normal, non-expanded Ataxin-1 protein does not result in an aggregate with a doughnut shape.

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