Tweaking a specific cell type's ability to absorb potassium in the brain improved walking and prolonged survival in a mouse model of Huntington's disease, reports a UCLA study published March 30 in the online edition of Nature Neuroscience. The discovery could point to new drug targets for treating the devastating disease, which strikes one in every 20,000 Americans.
Huntington's disease is passed from parent to child through a mutation in the huntingtin gene. By killing brain cells called neurons, the progressive disorder gradually deprives patients of their ability to walk, speak, swallow, breathe and think clearly. No cure exists, and patients with aggressive cases can die in as little as 10 years.
The laboratories of Baljit Khakh, a professor of physiology and neurobiology, and Michael Sofroniew, a professor of neurobiology, teamed up at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA to unravel the role played in Huntington's by astrocytes--large, star-shaped cells found in the brain and spinal cord.
"Astrocytes appear in the brain in equal numbers to neurons, yet haven't been closely studied. They enable neurons to signal each other by maintaining an optimal chemical environment outside the cells," explained Khakh, who, with Sofroniew, is a member of the UCLA Brain Research Institute. "We used two mouse models to explore whether astrocytes behave differently during Huntington's disease."
The first model mimicked aggressive, early-onset of the disorder, while the second imitated a slow-developing version.
Khakh and Sofroniew examined how the huntingtin mutation influenced astrocytes in the brain. In particular, they looked at astrocytes' interaction with a type of neuron that plays a central role in coordinating movement.
One key finding stood out from the data.
In both models, astrocytes with the mutant gene showed a measurable drop in Kir4.1, a protein that allows the astr
|Contact: Elaine Schmidt|
University of California - Los Angeles Health Sciences