Degeneration of the axon and synapse, the slender projection through which neurons transmit electrical impulses to neighboring cells, is a hallmark of some of the most crippling neurodegenerative and brain diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Huntington's disease and peripheral neuropathy.
Scientists have worked for decades to understand axonal degeneration and its relation to these diseases. Now, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School are the first to describe a gene – dSarm/Sarm1 – responsible for actively promoting axon destruction after injury. The research, published today online by Science, provides evidence of an exciting new therapeutic target that could be used to delay or even stop axon decay.
"This discovery has the potential to have a profound impact on our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases, much like the discovery of apoptosis (programmed cell death) fundamentally changed our understanding of cancer," said Marc R. Freeman, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and lead investigator on the study. "Identification of this gene allows us to start asking exciting new questions about the role of axon death in neurodegenerative diseases. For example, is it possible that these pathways are being inappropriately activated to cause premature axon death?"
For more than a century, scientists believed that injured axons severed from the neuron cell body passively wasted away due to a lack of nutrients. However, a mouse mutation identified in the early 1990s – called slow Wallerian degeneration (Wlds) – was able to suppress axon degeneration for weeks. This finding forced scientists to reassess Wallerian degeneration, the process through which an injured axon degenerates, as a passive process and consider the possibility that an active program of axon auto-destruction, akin to apoptotic death, was at work instead.
If Wallerian degeneration was an active process, hypothesized Dr. Freeman, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist, then it should be possible through forward genetic screens in Drosophila to identify mutants exhibiting Wlds-like axon protection. Freeman and colleagues screened more than 2,000 Drosophila mutants for ones that exhibited long-term survival of severed axons. Freeman says this was a heroic effort on the part of his colleagues. The screen took place over the next two and a half years, and involved seven students and post-docs in the Freeman lab—Jeannette M. Osterloh, A. Nicole Fox, PhD, Michelle A. Avery, PhD, Rachel Hackett, Mary A. Logan, PhD, Jennifer M. MacDonald, Jennifer S. Zeigenfuss—who performed the painstaking and labor-intensive experiments needed on each Drosophila mutant to identify flies that suppressed axonal degeneration after nerve injury.
Through these tests, they identified three mutants (out of the 2,000 screened) where severed axons survived for the lifespan of the fly. Next generation sequencing and chromosome deficiency mapping techniques were then used to isolate the single gene affected in all three – dSarm. These were loss-of-function alleles, meaning that Drosophila unable to produce the dSarm/Sarm1 molecule exhibited prolonged axon survival for as many as 30 days after injury. Freeman and colleagues went on to show that mice lacking Sarm1, the mammalian homolog of dSarm, also displayed remarkable preservation of injured axons. These findings provided the first direct evidence that Wallerian degeneration was driven by a conserved axonal death program and not a passive response to axon injury.
"For 20 years people have been looking for a gene whose normal function is to promote axon degeneration," said Osterloh, first author on the study. "Identification of the dSarm/Sarm1 gene has enormous therapeutic potential, for example as a knockdown target for patients suffering from diseases involving axonal loss."
The next step for Freeman and colleagues is to identify additional genes in the axon death pathway and investigate whether any have links with specific neurodegenerative diseases. "We're already working with scientists at UMMS to understand the role axon death plays in ALS and Huntington's disease," said Freeman. "We are very excited about the possibility that these findings could have broad therapeutic potential in many neurodegenerative diseases."
About the University of Massachusetts Medical School
The University of Massachusetts Medical School, one of the fastest growing academic health centers in the country, has built a reputation as a world-class research institution, consistently producing noteworthy advances in clinical and basic research. The Medical School attracts more than $270 million in research funding annually, 80 percent of which comes from federal funding sources. The mission of the Medical School is to advance the health and well-being of the people of the commonwealth and the world through pioneering education, research, public service and health care delivery with its clinical partner, UMass Memorial Health Care.
Jim Fessenden | EurekAlert!
Further reports about: > Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis > Drosophila melanogaster > Huntington's disease > Medical Wellness > brain disease > brain diseases > dSarm/Sarm1 > degenerative disease > electrical impulse > neighboring cells > neurodegenerative disease > peripheral neuropathy > programmed cell death
New application for acoustics helps estimate marine life populations
16.01.2018 | University of California - San Diego
Unexpected environmental source of methane discovered
16.01.2018 | University of Washington Health Sciences/UW Medicine
What enables electrons to be transferred swiftly, for example during photosynthesis? An interdisciplinary team of researchers has worked out the details of how...
For the first time, scientists have precisely measured the effective electrical charge of a single molecule in solution. This fundamental insight of an SNSF Professor could also pave the way for future medical diagnostics.
Electrical charge is one of the key properties that allows molecules to interact. Life itself depends on this phenomenon: many biological processes involve...
At the JEC World Composite Show in Paris in March 2018, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be focusing on the latest trends and innovations in laser machining of composites. Among other things, researchers at the booth shared with the Aachen Center for Integrative Lightweight Production (AZL) will demonstrate how lasers can be used for joining, structuring, cutting and drilling composite materials.
No other industry has attracted as much public attention to composite materials as the automotive industry, which along with the aerospace industry is a driver...
Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) and Tohoku University have developed high-quality GFO epitaxial films and systematically investigated their ferroelectric and ferromagnetic properties. They also demonstrated the room-temperature magnetocapacitance effects of these GFO thin films.
Multiferroic materials show magnetically driven ferroelectricity. They are attracting increasing attention because of their fascinating properties such as...
The oceans are the largest global heat reservoir. As a result of man-made global warming, the temperature in the global climate system increases; around 90% of...
08.01.2018 | Event News
11.12.2017 | Event News
08.12.2017 | Event News
17.01.2018 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation
17.01.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
17.01.2018 | Awards Funding