20 décembre 2007

Inherited Retardation And Autism Corrected In Mice

ScienceDaily — Researchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have corrected key symptoms of mental retardation and autism in mice. They have significantly alleviated a wide range of abnormalities due to fragile X syndrome by altering only a single gene, countering the effects of the fragile X mutation.

The work also indicates that a certain class of drugs could have the same effect. These drugs are not yet approved by the FDA, but will soon be entering into human clinical trials. There is currently no treatment or therapy for fragile X syndrome, whose symptoms include mental retardation, epilepsy, and abnormal body growth.

Fragile X syndrome (FXS), affecting 100,000 Americans, is the most common inherited cause of mental retardation and autism. The MIT researchers corrected FXS in mice modeling the disease. "These findings have major therapeutic implications for fragile X syndrome and autism," said study lead author Mark F. Bear, director of the Picower Institute and Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT.

The findings support the theory that many of FXS's psychiatric and neurological symptoms-learning disabilities, autistic behavior, childhood epilepsy- stem from too much activation of one of the brain's chief network managers-the metabotropic glutamate receptor mGluR5.

"Fragile X is a disorder of excess-excess synaptic connectivity, protein synthesis, memory extinction, body growth, excitability-and remarkably, all these excesses can be reduced by reducing mGluR5," said Bear, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

Individuals with FXS have mutations in the X chromosome's FMR1 gene, which encodes the fragile X mental retardation protein, FMRP. The MIT study found that FMRP and mGluR5 are at opposite ends of a kind of molecular seesaw. They keep each other in check, and without FMRP, mGluR5 signals run rampant.

Bear and colleagues study how genes and environment interact to refine connections in the brain. Synapses are the brain's connectors and their modifications are the basis for all learning and memory. There's a growing consensus among researchers that developmental brain disorders such as FXS, autism and schizophrenia should be considered "synapsopathies"- diseases of synaptic development and plasticity (the ability to change in response to experience).

Dendritic spines--little nubs on neurons' branchlike projections-receive many of the synaptic inputs from other neurons. Abnormal spines have long been associated with various forms of human mental retardation. In FXS, spines are more numerous, longer and more spindly than they should be. Thin spines tend to form weak connections.

The research team found that a 50 percent reduction in mGluR5 fixed multiple defects in the fragile X mice. In addition to correcting dendritic spines, reduced mGluR5 improved altered brain development and memory, restored normal body growth, and reduced seizures-many of the symptoms experienced by humans with FXS.

The researchers used genetic engineering to reduce mGluR5, but the same thing could be accomplished by a drug. Although not yet approved by the FDA, mGluR5 blockers are entering into human clinical trials. "Insights gained by this study suggest novel therapeutic approaches, not only for fragile X but also for autism and mental retardation of unknown origin," Bear said.

Earlier this year, MIT Picower Institute researcher Susumu Tonegawa and colleagues reported positive results using a different approach to reversing FXS symptoms. Tonegawa and colleagues identified a key enzyme called p21-activated kinase, or PAK, that affects the number, size and shape of connections between neurons.

This research is scheduled to be published in the Dec. 20 issue of Neuron. In addition to Bear, authors include Brown University graduate student Gul Dolen; Picower Institute postdoctoral fellow Emily Osterweil, B.S. Shankaranarayana Rao of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience in India; MIT graduate students Gordon B. Smith and Benjamin D. Auerbach; and Sumantra Chattarji of the National Center for Biological Sciences and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in India.

This work is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health; the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; the National Fragile X Foundation; FRAXA, a Fragile X research foundation; and the Simons Foundation.

Adapted from materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

07 décembre 2007

Missing Protein May Be Key To Autism

ScienceDaily — A missing brain protein may be one of the culprits behind autism and other brain disorders, researchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory report in the Dec. 6 issue of Neuron.

The protein helps synapses develop. Synapses--through which neurons communicate with one other-underlie our ability to learn and remember. Now Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, has uncovered an enzyme that is key to that protein's activity.

Synapses are complex structures consisting of ion channels, receptors and intricate protein complexes that all work together to send and receive signals. Improperly formed synapses could lead to mental retardation, and mutations in genes encoding certain synaptic proteins are associated with autism.

Tsai studies a kinase (kinases are enzymes that change proteins) called Cdk5. While Cdk5's best-known role is to help new neurons form and migrate to their correct positions during brain development, "emerging evidence supports an important role for Cdk5 at the synapse," she said.

To gain a better understanding of how Cdk5 promotes synapse formation, Tsai's lab looked into how Cdk5 interacts with synapse-inducing proteins-in particular, a protein called CASK. CASK--a key scaffolding protein-is one of the first proteins on the scene of a developing synapse.

Scaffolding proteins such as CASK are like site managers, supporting protein-to-protein interactions to ensure that the resulting architecture is sound. Mutations in the genes responsible for Cdk5 and CASK have been found in mental retardation patients.

"We found that Cdk5 is critical for recruiting CASK to do its job for developing synapses," Tsai said. "Without Cdk5, CASK was not in the right place at the right time, and failed to interact with essential presynaptic components. This, in turn, led to problems with calcium influx." The flow of calcium in and out of neurons affects processes central to nervous system development and plasticity--its ability to change in response to experience.

Gene mutations and/or deletions in synaptic cell surface proteins and molecules called neurexins and neuroligins have been associated with autism. The problem with CASK recruitment investigated by the Tsai laboratory creates the same result as these genetic changes.

The Picower study also provides the first molecular explanation of how Cdk5, which also may go awry in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, promotes synapse development.

"There are still a lot of unknowns," said Tsai, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. "Causes for psychiatric disorders are still very unclear, but accumulating evidence strongly suggests that alterations in the synaptogenesis program can lead to these serious diseases."

In addition to Tsai and Picower researcher Benjamin A. Samuels, co-authors are associated with Harvard Medical School; Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.; and Academia Sinica in Taiwan.

This work is supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

Adapted from materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.