The Cognitive Deficits of Mice and Men: How the cerebellum contributes to the cognitive symptoms of SCA1

Written by Kim M. Gruver Edited by David Bushart

What’s cognition got to do with ataxia? Could the cerebellum mediate both cognitive and motor symptoms in the same disease? And how can scientists use mice to find out?

Spinocerebellar ataxia type 1, or SCA1, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that has no cure. In SCA1, an expanded CAG repeat sequence in the ATXN1 gene increases the chain length of the amino acid glutamine (Q), so SCA1 is called a “polyQ” disease. As suggested by its name, the cerebellum is a heavily affected brain region in SCA1. Since the cerebellum is involved in motor coordination, it is no surprise that dysregulated control of movement, or ataxia, is a major symptom of SCA1.

However, what may come as a surprise is that some SCA1 patients also experience changes in cognition in addition to ataxia. Since the mutated ATXN1 gene is found throughout the brain, it has been difficult to tease apart whether the cerebellum contributes to the cognitive symptoms of SCA1 in addition to the motor symptoms. It is possible that cognitive symptoms of SCA1 might be exclusively caused by brain regions other than the cerebellum. For example, ATXN1 is also highly expressed in the prefrontal cortex, a region known for mediating many cognitive processes. But before we discount the possibility that the cerebellum plays a role in the cognitive symptoms experienced by some SCA1 patients, it is important to note an interesting observation in neuroscience research that has emerged in recent decades. Scientists have described a surprising role of the cerebellum in a host of neurological disorders like autism and schizophrenia. In light of these findings, that the cerebellum could be implicated in both the motor and cognitive symptoms of SCA1 may not be so far-fetched.

two borwn lab mice held in the hand of a researcher wearing plastic gloves
Two lab mice from the National Institutes of Health, image courtesy of WikiMedia.

A powerful tool on the researcher’s lab bench to study diseases like SCA1 is the laboratory mouse. Since 1902, mice have played an indispensable role in disease research. Scientists can breed mice that express human genes, such as a mutated form of ATXN1, to figure out what goes awry in diseases like SCA1. Animal models of disease help researchers to identify potential treatment strategies that may be useful to humans. Since such in-depth analysis and careful experimental manipulation is impossible in human patients, animal models are an invaluable tool to study diseases like SCA1.

In the SCA1 field, scientists use multiple animal models to study SCA1. Researchers have harnessed the differences between these mouse models to address different questions, such as:

  • “How does the number of CAG repeats affect SCA1 symptoms in mice?”
  • “What happens if the ATXN1 gene is removed altogether?”
  • “Do SCA1 symptoms still occur if the mutant ATXN1 gene is restricted to cerebellar Purkinje cells?

 In mice and in humans, we know that the length of the polyQ expansion in the ATXN1 gene correlates with both the severity and the age of symptom onset of SCA1. Mice that express more CAG repeats (a longer polyQ expansion) in their ATXN1 gene experience more severe symptoms that start earlier in life than mice with a shorter polyQ expansion. When mutant ATXN1 expression is restricted to Purkinje cells in the cerebellum, mice display motor impairments similar to what is observed in mice with mutant ATXN1 expression everywhere in the brain. This tells us that disrupting healthy ATXN1 expression in Purkinje cells alone is sufficient to cause motor symptoms that stem from SCA1. To put it plainly, mouse models of SCA1 have been a crucial component of SCA1 research.

Since human SCA1 patients experience behavioral symptoms, scientists also use behavioral tools to evaluate the symptoms of SCA1 mice. Motor coordination tests are essential in ataxia research. These tests allow scientists to determine whether a potential intervention improves or worsens symptoms in mice. This is the first step to evaluate whether an intervention could be promising for human patients. However, as we discussed earlier, motor impairments are not the only symptom faced by SCA1 patients: many exhibit cognitive deficits as well. But could mice be used to evaluate something as complex as cognition? Can laboratory mice really help scientists uncover whether the cerebellum contributes to the cognitive impairments observed in SCA1? Researchers at the University of Minnesota say yes.

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New molecule can reverse the Huntington’s disease mutation in lab models

Written by Dr. Michael Flower Edited by Dr. Rachel Harding

Editor’s Note: This article was initially published by HDBuzz on March 13, 2020. They have graciously allowed us to build on their work and add a section on how this research may be relevant to ataxia. This additional writing was done by Celeste Suart and edited by David Bushart.

A collaborative team of scientists from Canada and Japan have identified a small molecule which can change the CAG-repeat length in different lab models of Huntington’s disease.

CAG repeats are unstable

Huntington’s disease is caused by a stretch of C, A and G chemical letters in the Huntingtin gene, which are repeated over and over again until the number of repeats passes a critical limit; at least 36 CAG-repeats are needed to result in HD.

In fact, these repeats can be unstable, and carry on getting bigger throughout HD patients’ lives, but the rate of change of the repeat varies in different tissues of the body.

In the blood, the CAG repeat is quite stable, so an HD genetic blood test result remains reliable. But the CAG repeat can expand particularly fast in some deep structures of the brain that are involved in movement, where they can grow to over 1000 CAG repeats. Scientists think that there could be a correlation between repeat expansion and brain cell degeneration, which might explain why certain brain structures are more vulnerable in HD.

a print out of genetic information show as a list of A,T, C, and G letters
The CAG repeat of the huntingtin gene sequence can be changed to include more and more repeats, in a process called repeat expansion. This can also happens in some ataxia related genes. Image credit: “Gattaca?” by IRGlover is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

But why?

This raises the question, what is it that’s causing the CAG repeat to get bigger? It seems to be something to do with DNA repair.

We’re all exposed continually to an onslaught of DNA damage every day, from sunlight and passive smoking, to ageing and what we eat. Over millions of years, we’ve evolved a complex web of DNA repair systems to rapidly repair damage done to our genomes before it can kill our cells or cause cancer. Like all cellular machines, that DNA repair machinery is made by following instructions in certain genes. In effect, our DNA contains the instructions for repairing itself, which is quite trippy but also fairly cool.

What is it that’s causing the CAG repeat to get bigger? 

We’ve known for several years that certain mouse models of HD have less efficient systems to repair their DNA, and those mice have more stable CAG repeats. What’s more, deleting certain DNA repair genes altogether can prevent repeat expansion entirely.

But hang on, isn’t our DNA repair system meant to protect against mutations like these?? Well normally, yes. However, it appears a specific DNA repair system, called mismatch repair, sees the CAG repeat in the huntingtin gene as an error, and tries to repair it, but does a shoddy job and introduces extra repeats.

Why does this matter?

There’s been an explosion of interest in this field recently, largely because huge genetic studies in HD patients have found that several DNA repair genes can affect the age HD symptoms start and the speed at which they progress. One hypothesis to explain these findings is that slowing down repeat expansion slows down the disease. What if we could make a drug that stops, or even reverses repeat expansion? Maybe we could slow down or even prevent HD.

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Byproducts of canola oil production show therapeutic potential for MJD and Parkinson’s Disease

Written by Dr. Maria do Carmo Costa, Edited by Dr. Hayley McLoughlin

Collaboration between researchers in Portugal and the United Kingdom discover that a canola oil by-product shows promise, corrects MJD/SCA3 and Parkinson’s Disease symptoms in animal models.

Isolated compounds or extracts (containing a mixture of compounds) from certain plants are showing promise as potential anti-aging drugs or as therapeutics for neurodegenerative diseases. Some of these plant compounds or extracts can improve the capacity of cells to fight oxidative stress that is defective in aging and in some neurodegenerative diseases. Machado-Joseph disease, also known as Spinocerebellar ataxia type 3, and Parkinson’s disease are two neurodegenerative diseases in which cells inability to defend against oxidative stress contributes to neuronal death. In this study, the groups of Dr. Thoo Lin and Dr. Maciel partnered to test the therapeutic potential of an extract from the canola plant rapeseed pomace (RSP) with antioxidant properties in Machado-Joseph disease and Parkinson’s disease worm (Caenorhabditis elegans) models.

Canola field with snowcapped mountains in the background, July 1990
Canola field with snowcapped mountains in the background, image courtesy of USDA NRCS Montana on Flickr.

Machado-Joseph disease is a dominant neurodegenerative ataxia caused by an expansion of CAG nucleotides in the ATXN3 gene resulting in a mutant protein (ATXN3). While in unaffected individuals this CAG repeat harbors 12 to 51 trinucleotides, in patients with Machado-Joseph disease contains 55 to 88 CAG repeats. As each CAG trinucleotide in the ATXN3 gene encodes one amino acid glutamine (Q), the disease protein harbors a stretch of continuous Qs, also known as polyglutamine (polyQ) tract.

Parkinson’s disease that is characterized by loss of dopaminergic neurons can be caused either by genetic mutations or by environmental factors. Mutations in the genes encoding the protein a-synuclein and the enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase (a crucial enzyme for the production of dopamine) are amongst the genetic causes of patients with Parkinson’s disease.

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Terapia gênica validada em celulas estaminais SCA3 humanas

Escrito por Dr. Marija Cvetanovic, Editado por Dr. Sriram Jayabal, Traduzido para Português por Guilherme Santos, Publicado inicialmente em: 20 de março de 2020.

Grupo de pesquisa em Michigan relata a criação do primeiro modelo de célula humana aprovado pelo NIH que reflete as características da doença SCA3 – defeitos celulares que, após terapia genética, mostram melhora

A ataxia espinocerebelar tipo 3 (SCA3) é uma doença genética de início tardio, de herança dominante, que afeta várias regiões do cérebro. Os indivíduos afetados sofrem de vários sintomas, sendo a coordenação do movimento a mais prejudicada e debilitante. A SCA3 é causada por uma mutação no gene Ataxin-3 (ATXN3). Em indivíduos não afetados, o gene ATXN3 geralmente tem de 12 a 44 repetições do código genético “CAG;” no entanto, no código genético de algumas pessoas, o número de repetições de CAG pode se tornar anormalmente alto. Se essa mutação de “expansão repetida” fizer com que o gene ATXN3 tenha mais de 56 repetições CAG, a pessoa desenvolverá ataxia SCA3. As células usam sequências CAG repetidas em seu genoma para produzir proteínas com longas extensões do aminoácido glutamina. Nas células SCA3, esses tratos de “poliglutamina” (polyQ) são anormalmente longos na proteína ATXN3, o que torna a proteína mais propensa a formar aglomerados (ou “agregados”) na célula. A presença desses aglomerados de proteínas nas células do cérebro é uma das características do SCA3.

Apesar de conhecer a causa genética da SCA3, ainda não se sabe como essa mutação afeta as células no nível molecular. Dito isto, vários modelos celulares e animais foram desenvolvidos nas últimas duas décadas para ajudar a estudar esses mecanismos subjacentes. Os modelos SCA3 não apenas ajudaram a nossa compreensão da progressão da doença em todos os níveis (molecular, celular, tecido e comportamental), mas também nos ajudaram a nos aproximar de intervenções terapêuticas. Por exemplo, estudos recentes usando modelos de camundongo SCA3 estabeleceram que direcionar o ATXN3 com uma forma de terapia genética conhecida como tratamento com oligonucleotídeo antisense (ASO) poderia muito bem ser uma estratégia eficaz para melhorar a vida dos pacientes. Os ASOs direcionados ao ATXN3 fazem com que as células do cérebro produzam menos proteína ATXN3 mutante e, quando administradas a camundongos SCA3, melhoram sua função motora. Esses resultados apoiam fortemente o uso potencial de ASOs no tratamento da SCA3. Ainda assim, é importante verificar se esse achado pode ser repetido em neurônios humanos (um passo necessário para nos aproximar dos ensaios clínicos da ASO).

Female scientist in a while lab coat busy at work, we are looking at her from behind through some glass bottles
Imagem de um cientista pesquisador trabalhando no laboratório. Imagem cortesia de pxfuel.

A experiência anterior de ensaios clínicos malsucedidos destaca a importância de determinar as semelhanças e diferenças entre humanos e camundongos quando se trata de doença. Por exemplo, a mutação SCA3 não ocorre naturalmente em camundongos; portanto, modelar SCA3 em camundongos geralmente requer manipulação genética adicional, o que poderia levar a efeitos inesperados que normalmente não vemos nos humanos. Além disso, podemos perder importantes determinantes da patologia de SCA3 devido às diferenças inerentes entre humanos e camundongos. Por exemplo, proteínas que ajudam a contribuir para a SCA3 em pacientes humanos podem simplesmente não estar presentes nos neurônios do rato (e vice-versa). Devido a essas diferenças de espécies, as intervenções terapêuticas eficazes em camundongos nem sempre são tão eficazes em humanos.

Os neurônios humanos SCA3 podem ajudar a preencher a lacuna entre modelos de roedores e pacientes humanos, atuando como uma ferramenta clinicamente relevante para examinar os mecanismos da doença e testar novas terapias. Como não podemos remover uma parte do cérebro de um paciente com SCA3 para estudar a doença, esses neurônios devem ser criados em laboratório. Os neurônios humanos podem ser gerados a partir de células estaminais pluripotentes induzidas (iPSCs) ou de células estiminais embrionárias humanas (hESCs). As células estaminais pluripotentes induzidas (iPSCs) são produzidas a partir de células adultas (geralmente células do sangue ou da pele) que são reprogramadas para retornar a uma forma semelhante a um embrião (conhecido como estado “pluripotente”). Assim como durante o desenvolvimento normal, as iPSCs podem criar muitos tipos diferentes de células, incluindo neurônios. Um problema com essa abordagem é que o processo de reprogramação pode potencialmente alterar essas células de maneira a afetar a forma como a doença se apresenta. Para evitar esse problema, os pesquisadores também podem criar neurônios humanos a partir de células estaminais embrionárias humanas (hESCs), derivadas de embriões e, portanto, naturalmente pluripotentes. Como os hESCs não requerem reprogramação, é mais provável que modelem com precisão a doença. No entanto, eles são mais difíceis de obter e trabalhar. Os pesquisadores deste estudo, liderados por Lauren Moore no laboratório do Dr. Hank Paulson na Universidade de Michigan, usaram hESCs para gerar o primeiro modelo SCA3 aprovado pelo Instituto Nacional de Saúde (Americano) – National Institutes of Health (NIH) usando células humanas.

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The importance of balancing Sacsin protein levels in ARSACS

Written by Dr. Ambika Tewari Edited by Larissa Nitschke

Tipping the balance of the protein Sacsin alters outcomes in a mouse model of ARSACS

There are many different types of ataxia, each with a unique cause. For several ataxias, the mutated gene that causes the disorder has been identified. This is a great achievement that we owe to recent advancements in genome sequencing. Knowing the gene that is altered in a disorder provides researchers with a solid foundation to understand the mechanisms underlying the disease. In the neurodegenerative disorder Autosomal recessive spastic ataxia of Charlevoix-Saguenay (ARSACS), this alteration occurs in the SACS gene. Currently, over 170 different SACS gene mutations have been identified in human patients. Because each gene is equipped with a specific set of instructions to make a protein, each mutation can cause a change in these instructions. This usually results in the production of very little sacsin protein – or no protein at all. In several disorders, it has been shown that maintaining optimal levels of a variety of proteins is crucial to the proper functioning of the nervous system.

In 2015, a group of researchers wanted to understand why the loss of the protein sacsin produced certain symptoms in ARSACS patients. To study this, they removed the entire SACS gene from a mouse (known as the Sacs-/-  line), which meant that these mice made no sacsin protein. Mice with only one copy of this mutation (Sacs+/-) could produce up to 50% of the protein. In this same study, the researchers also wanted to make a more disease-relevant mouse model, so they made a mouse with a mutation known as “R272C.” R272C was a SACS gene mutation that was initially identified in a patient with ARSACS. Mice with two copies of the mutated gene (SacsR262C/R262C) had sacsin levels reduced to 21%, whereas mice with one copy (SacsR262C/+) had 65% of sacsin levels. Together, these mouse models provided the researchers with a group of mice that had a range of sacsin protein levels. These mice could then be used to understand how changes in the levels of sacsin affect behavior, especially in the ways that we might observe in ARSACS.

brown laboratory mouse being held by rsearcher with blue gloved hands
Stock image of a laboratory research mouse, similar to the R272C ARSACS mouse. Image courtesy of Rama on Wikimedia Commons.

ARSACS patients have a childhood onset of ataxia that worsens over time. This is due to the loss of Purkinje cells in the cerebellum, the area of the brain that controls motor coordination. Without Purkinje cells, the cerebellum cannot properly function, resulting in the uncoordinated gait that we call “ataxia.” The researchers found that mice with less than 50% sacsin protein also displayed progressive motor abnormalities (measured using three well-established mouse coordination tests). These mice also showed degeneration of Purkinje cells, which became more apparent with increasing age. Moreover, as protein levels decreased, motor performance and Purkinje cell loss became more pronounced.

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