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.
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.
One of the most important features of neurons (Purkinje cells, for example), is that they are capable of electrical communication. Think of the last time you saw a TV intro or movie montage with a depiction of the brain on a microscopic level – though it’s technically invisible to the naked eye, that ‘spark’ you can see traveling down a portion of the neuron is actually not too far from reality. One of the most common ways to describe an active neuron, in fact, is to say that it’s “firing.” Essentially, when a neuron is activated, it ‘fires off’ an electrical impulse that is transmitted down a long, slender extension known as the axon. The axon ends where the next neuron in the circuit begins, and when the impulse arrives at that point, it initiates a series of events that allows the signal to jump to the next cell.
This electrical signal is made possible by molecular machines known as ion channels. These proteins span the cell membrane, which is the barrier between the interior and exterior of the cell. When they receive a certain signal, the channel opens, allowing ions – atoms that carry an electrical charge, such as sodium, potassium, and calcium – to pass through. There are many types of proteins that allow the transport of small molecular components, but the source of a neuron’s electrical capabilities is that its channels specifically allow ions to pass into or out of the cell. Though a single ion’s charge is quite small, the large number of ions that are exchanged when a neuron’s channels open makes for a significant electrical effect – enough to produce an electrical signal that allows neurons to communicate with one another, giving us the ability to think, move, and interact with our environment.
Though the mutations that cause SCAs typically occur in genes that are expressed in every cell of the body, disease is usually restricted to the brain. One theory about why this is the case is that these SCA-related genes are necessary for the health and maintenance of ion channels in certain brain tissues – namely, the cerebellum and brainstem. At any rate, there is evidence that the electrical activity of these brain regions is abnormal in many SCAs, which strongly suggests that ion channels play a critical role in these disorders.
Purkinje cells are important neuronal cells located in the outer layers of the cerebellum. The cerebellum is part of the brain that is primarily known for controlling sense of balance and movement but can also influence learning, memory, and mood.
Purkinje cells receive lots of information from other neurons through their large and highly branched processes called dendrites (Figure 1, see below). This information is processed in large oval cell bodies of Purkinje neurons and is transmitted from Purkinje neurons through their axons, another type of neuronal process, to other neurons residing deep within the cerebellum.
Purkinje cells look a lot like trees. The dendrites are like the leaves and branches, the cell body is like the tree trunk, and the axon is like the roots. Information starts at the top and goes to the bottom. This information processing ensures balance and accuracy of movements.
Because of these important roles, dysfunction or loss of Purkinje cells often leads to problems with balance and movement. Indeed, a loss of normal Purkinje neuron function appears to be very important for the development of ataxia.
Many researchers study different inherited ataxias by expressing mutant proteins in Purkinje cells in mouse models of these diseases. For example, the first mouse model created for spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1), called ATXN1[82Q], expresses mutant Ataxin-1 only in Purkinje neurons. These mice develop balance and movement deficits and were critical for increasing our understanding of how Purkinje neurons influence how SCA1 progresses.