A study from Columbia University and Harvard University has uncovered a complex interplay between neurons and support cells known as astrocytes that contributes to the pathology of ALS. Such an intricate interplay complicates regenerative therapies for this disease.
In the spinal cord, a group of neurons called motor neurons extend their axons to skeletal muscles and provide the neural signals for the muscles to contract, which allows movement. Motor neurons also have associated support cells known as glial cells, and a specific group of glial cells known as astrocytes associate with motor neurons in the spinal cord.
Astrocytes are star-shaped cells that surround neurons in the brain and spinal cord, and they outnumber neurons 50:1. Astrocytes are very active in the central nervous system, and serve to maintain, support, and repair the nervous tissue that they serve, and are responsible, in large part, for the plasticity of the nervous system.
Motor neurons die off during the course of ALS, which leads to paralysis and death within two to fives years of diagnosis. ALS also affects neurons in the brain and it completely robs the individual of the ability to initiate movement or even breathe. There is, at present, no cure and no life-prolonging treatment for ALS.
Data from the ALS Association group suggests that astrocytes in ALS patients go from supporting neurons to strangling them. According to Lucie Bruijn, the chief scientist at the ALS Association in Washington D.C.,, these results seem to “strengthen the case that astrocytes are central to the ALS disease process.” She continued: “Furthermore, the results are based on an exciting new disease model system, one that will allow us to test important hypotheses and search for new therapeutic targets.”
In a cell culture system of ALS, in which neurons derived from embryonic cells were co-cultured with normal and ALS astrocytes, Bruijn’s team found that gene expression patterns in those neurons associated with ALS astrocytes were abnormal. In this experiment, neurons derived from embryonic stem cells with co-cultured with normal and ALS affected astrocytes. In a time course experiment in which gene expression profiles were analyzed from the neurons after specific amounts of time, the gene expression patterns from the normal astrocytes co-cultured with neurons were compared with those of the ALS-affected astrocytes co-cultured with neurons. From these experiments, it became clear that the ALS-affected astrocytes did not communicate properly with the nearby neurons.
Even though neurons communicated with each other by means of the release of neurotransmitters, astrocytes and other glial cells also communicate with each other by means of the release of various molecules. This astrocyte-neuron communication maintains healthy neuron function. However, in the case of ALS, the neuron-astrocyte communication is “profoundly disrupted” and is disruption is not neuron dependent, since in this experiment, the neurons were normal. Without proper communication with their astrocytes, motor neurons the spinal cords of ALS patients are not able to function properly.
According to Bruijn, “This study points out several potential points for treatment intervention.” The protection of motor neurons is the goal, since the astrocytes seem to be doing little to protect and support the neurons and also might be hurting them.
An added bonus to this study is that when spinal cords from mice with a disease that shows some similarities to ALS have their gene expression profiles compared to these gene expression profiles observed in the cultured neurons, the results are remarkably similar. This shows that culture system does recapitulate what goes on in the spinal cord.
The next step is to show that the molecular abnormalities discovered in this system mimics those that occur in human disease. This publication utilized mouse cells, and the human disease, while similar, is not exactly the same.