Mitochondrially Stressed

Written by Dr. Judit M. Pérez Ortiz Edited by Dr. Brenda Toscano Márquez

Scientists describe how SCA2 oxidative stress can affect mitochondrial function, and potentially how to fix it

Mitochondrial Stress

We all have experienced stress. When cramming for an exam last minute, or getting ready for a job interview, our bodies feel stress-related energetic drive and hyperfocus. Small bursts of stress can help us get through specific demands, but too much constant stress takes a toll and makes it difficult for us to function. It turns out that the cells in our bodies experience stress too! While the stress response that we experience in our hectic lives is associated with stress hormones, the stress cells experience is from another source altogether – mitochondria. Scientists at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark identified a novel link between mitochondrial oxidative stress and spinocerebellar ataxia type 2 (SCA2).

Classically, we learn that mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell responsible for making the bulk of the energy currency that cells need to work and survive, ATP. To do this, mitochondria rely on a cooperative group of protein complexes called the Electron Transport Chain (ETC). Albeit via a more sophisticated procedure than a hot-potato game, the complexes mediate chemical reactions (called redox reactions) by which “hot” electrons are passed from high energy molecules to lower-energy molecules, and so on. The final electron recipient (“acceptor”) is a stable oxygen molecule and their encounter is used to make water. The activity of the ETC helps harness energy that is ultimately used to make ATP in what is called oxidative phosphorylation.

Sometimes not all the electrons make it through; the hot potato “drops”. Electrons leak out and react directly with molecular oxygen (chemical formula O2), turning unstable superoxide (chemical formula O2) which in turn, can create other reactive oxygen species (ROS). The extra electron in superoxide gives it a negative charge and makes it highly reactive and toxic. Just like the small amount of stress primes your body for a challenge to come, low levels of ROS hints the cell that it needs to make some changes to optimize the system. As the superoxide levels go up, cells make more antioxidant enzymes available to keep ROS in check. Antioxidant enzymes convert the highly reactive superoxide to a less reactive hydrogen peroxide (like the one in your bathroom cabinet). This, in turn, can be converted to water and ordinary oxygen molecules. In a word, the antioxidants “detox” the cells from ROS insult.

The cell becomes “stressed out” when there’s too much ROS that can’t be compensated for. This stress caused by oxygen or “oxidative stress” can damage DNA, fats, and proteins that affect the cell and organism as a whole. For example, oxidative stress can contribute to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases.

cartoon drawing of human cells that are blue
An artist’s drawing of human cells under a microscope.

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Zapping the brain to help ataxia

Written by Dr. Judit M. Perez Ortiz Edited by Dr. Sriram Jayabal

In a new study, scientists have found that “zapping” the brain with an electromagnetic wand may someday help patients with spinocerebellar ataxia.

In an era of ever-evolving technological advances used for personal entertainment and space travel, medical scientists are harnessing the power of electromagnetism to safely penetrate the skull and manipulate brain cells by mimicking their favorite language – electric current.

Clinicians currently have access to powerful and effective tools designed to stimulate brain cells (known as neurons) for various neurological and psychiatric conditions. Spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs), however, are not yet in the mix. Though several techniques exist, the methods used to stimulate neurons in the brain can be broadly classified into invasive and non-invasive approaches. For instance, Vagus Nerve Stimulation is used for drug-resistant epileptic seizures, while Deep Brain Stimulation is used for Parkinson’s disease and severe depression. In both instances, a surgical procedure is required because the implanted electrodes have to come in direct contact with the target nerve or brain structure. Disadvantages associated with these surgical methods include the risk of infection, bleeding, and hardware malfunction. Non-invasive approaches to stimulate the brain include electroconvulsive (“shock”) therapy, in which electrodes are placed on the scalp surface to provoke a controlled seizure that yields a therapeutic effect. However, shock therapy requires anesthesia, and patients run the risk of memory issues as a side effect. A second non-invasive brain stimulation tool is also available, called repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS). There are many factors that make rTMS clinically appealing: it does not require surgery, it is already FDA-approved (for severe depression), it is painless, and it has been found to be safe. Further, unlike the broad brain stimulation achieved by electroshock therapy, rTMS delivers a more precise stimulation in a defined brain region, which leaves untargeted brain regions untouched.

cartoon of neuronal brain cells and electricity flowing between them
Artist’s depiction of electrical signals in the brain. Image courtesy of flickr.

Besides its circular or figure-eight attachment, the rTMS device looks quite a bit like a magic wand. Though this is no wizard’s tool, you could say that it does cast a powerful spell: the attachments on the end of the rTMS device are electromagnetic coils, which have the power to “zap” specific brain regions. In a remarkably simple procedure, the wand is gently placed over the patient’s scalp, where it delivers electromagnetic pulses that create just enough electric current to stimulate underlying brain cells without adversely affecting them.

A new pilot study conducted at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found that using rTMS to stimulate the cerebellum of SCA patients is safe and may improve some aspects of ataxia. First, the investigators recorded the study participants’ baseline movement performance using a battery of tests designed to evaluate different features of ataxia, including balance, gait, and posture. Then, half of the study participants were randomly assigned to receive rTMS, while the other half were assigned to the control, or “sham” group.

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Recovering Purkinje cell health could improve quality of life in SCA3

Written by Jorge Diogo Da Silva Edited by Dr. David Bushart

Normalizing neuronal dysfunction in SCA3/MJD by activating a receptor inside cells

Spinocerebellar ataxia type 3 (SCA3), also known as Machado-Joseph disease (MJD), is an inherited neurodegenerative disease that typically begins in mid-adulthood. This disease causes loss of coordination and balance (a group of symptoms known as ataxia), abnormal eye movements, and other motor symptoms, all of which limit a patient’s daily life activities. Treating SCA3 patients is currently very challenging, since there are no drugs or other treatments that slow or stop the progression of this disease. While several therapeutic options have been tested in clinical trials, none have shown considerable and consistent effects in improving disease symptoms. Therefore, it is imperative that other treatments are investigated and tested in the clinical setting, in the hopes that we might find a way to improve the lives of SCA3 patients.

The cause of this disease is very well-characterized: patients with SCA3 have an abnormal form of a protein called ataxin-3. All proteins are made up of a sequence of several smaller building blocks known as amino acids. In ataxin-3’s sequence, there is a region where one type of amino acid, glutamine, is repeated consecutively. SCA3 arises when the number of these repeated amino acids is very high (an abnormality known as a polyglutamine expansion), which is toxic for cells.

One of the regions of the brain that is most responsible for regulating balance and movement coordination is the cerebellum, which is located just behind the brainstem (the region connecting the spinal cord to the rest of the brain). As expected, the cerebellum is one of the most affected brain regions in SCA3, since it helps control gait and coordination. Purkinje cells, which are some of the largest neurons in the brain, make up a substantial portion of the cerebellum. These cells receive information from other neurons that detect our surroundings, then emit a signal to the brain regions that control muscles and regulate our movement. This allows us to make movements that are coherent and fluid.

cross section of the cerebellum with purkinje cells stained blue
Cerebellum Cross Section with Purkinje Cells. Image courtesy of Berkshire Community College Bioscience Image Library

Since Purkinje cells are dysfunctional in SCA3, it is reasonable to think that improving the well-being of these cells could also reduce symptoms. In a recent publication, Watanave and colleagues described how they explored a strategy to improve Purkinje cell function using drugs in a mouse model of SCA3, with findings that could be relevant for future studies in patients.

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Non-invasive imaging of neurodegeneration in live animals

Written by Dr. Marija Cvetanovic   Edited by Larissa Nitschke

Purkinje cells (a type of neuron in the cerebellum) are the most vulnerable cells in many Spinocerebellar Ataxias (SCAs). While animal models of SCA have been very fruitful in understanding the mechanisms of Purkinje cell neurodegeneration, none of these models have allowed for visualization of neurodegenerative processes in live animals as the disease progresses – until now. In the laboratory of Dr. Reinhard Köster, researchers have developed a zebrafish model of SCA that allows for the expression of SCA-causing mutant protein in Purkinje cells and proteins that can be used to monitor Purkinje cell changes. As zebrafish larvae are almost transparent, researchers can now study pathogenic changes in neurons in a live animal during disease progression.

Since the 1993 discovery of the mutation that causes Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 1 (SCA1), we have significantly increased our understanding of disease pathogenesis using animal models. While there are advantages and disadvantages of using any model, most researchers would agree that the similarity between humans and the animal used, plus the cost of creating and caring for the animals, are critical determinants of which model to choose. Mouse models, for instance, are useful to study pathogenesis at the molecular, cellular, tissue and behavioral level, but are costly to house and maintain. Fruit fly models, on the other hand, allow high-throughput studies (that is, studies that can produce a lot of relevant data quickly) of disease modifying properties but are much farther from human beings evolutionarily. Unfortunately, neither of these animal models allow us to follow up changes in neurons in the same animal throughout disease progression – to study the neurons, the animal must be euthanized and the brain must be dissected. Understanding how neurons are affected during disease progression, however, is very important. Observing the same neurons over time could increase our understanding of disease processes and inform us about the optimal timing for therapies. For example, if we were to identify changes in neurons that occur just prior to the onset of motor symptoms, this might mean that these changes are a contributing factor to behavioral pathology. This could also tell us the stage at which neurons start dying and disease thus becomes irreversible.

In an effort to examine how cells behave over time, many researchers use zebrafish. The fact that zebrafish embryos (larvae) are mostly transparent means that we can follow changes in neurons throughout disease progression. Moreover, in most SCAs, Purkinje cells in the cerebellum are the neurons that are most affected by the disease-causing mutant protein, and the zebrafish cerebellum has an anatomy and function that is quite similar to the human cerebellum. Zebrafish are also inexpensive and produce hundreds of offspring weekly, providing researchers with a large number of animals to study.

A dozen zebrafish swim in deep blue water. Zebra fish are narrow and long. They have two to three black stripes running down their side.
A school of Zebrafish (Photo by Lynn Ketchum, courtesy of Oregon State University)

Using state-of-the-art genetic approaches, Dr. Reinhard Köster’s laboratory at the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany created a zebrafish model of SCA that expresses two types of protein in their Purkinje cells: a disease-causing SCA mutant protein, and a fluorescent reporter protein to monitor degenerative changes and cell death.

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Brain-derived neurotrophic factor: A new (old) hope for the treatment of SCA1

Written by Eviatar Fields Edited by Dr. Vitaliy Bondar

Scientists use Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor to delay motor symptom onset and cell death in a mouse model of Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 1

Spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) is a rare neurodegenerative disease that affects about 2 out of 100,000 individuals. Patients with SCA1 present with motor symptoms such as disordered walking, poor motor coordination and balance problems by their mid-thirties and will progressively get worse symptoms over the next two decades. No treatments for SCA1 exists. These motor symptoms cause a significant decrease in patient independence and quality of life. Scientists use mouse models that recreate many SCA1 symptoms to understand the cause of this disease and test new treatments.

In this paper, Mellesmoen and colleagues use a mouse model of SCA1 which presents with severe motor symptoms by adulthood. In order to measure the severity of the motor problems in the SCA1 mouse model, the researchers use a test called a rotarod. The rotarod test is similar to a rolling log balance: mice are placed on a rotating drum that slowly accelerates. Mice that can stay on the drum for longer durations have better motor coordination than mice who fall off the drum earlier. Mellesmoen was trying to find a way to get the mice to stay on the drum for longer.

artistic cartoon of male doctor sin from of a microscope and large DNA model
Cartoon of a medical researcher holding a clipboard. 

Purkinje cells, the main cells of the cerebellum, eventually die in SCA1 mouse models and in patients later in life. However, it remains unclear how and why these brain cells, which are responsible for the fine-tuning of movement and motor coordination, die. This is an important question as its answer might lead to new treatments that prevent brain cells from dying which might improve SCA1 symptoms. One possibility is that some changes in gene expression (that is, how “active” or “inactive” a gene is) causes the cells to die in SCA1 mice. To test this hypothesis, the authors used a technique called RNA-seq to examine how gene expression is altered in SCA1 mice compared to healthy mice.

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