The β-secretase, β-site amyloid precursor protein cleaving enzyme 1 (BACE1), is a prime therapeutic target for lowering cerebral β-amyloid (Aβ) levels in Alzheimer's disease (AD). Clinical development of BACE1 inhibitors is being intensely pursued. However, little is known about the physiological functions of BACE1, and the possibility exists that BACE1 inhibition may cause mechanism-based side effects. Indeed, BACE1-/- mice exhibit a complex neurological phenotype. Interestingly, BACE1 co-localizes with presynaptic neuronal markers, indicating a role in axons and/or terminals. Moreover, recent studies suggest axon guidance molecules are potential BACE1 substrates. Here, we used a genetic approach to investigate the function of BACE1 in axon guidance of olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs), a well-studied model of axon targeting in vivo.
We bred BACE1-/- mice with gene-targeted mice in which GFP is expressed from the loci of two odorant-receptors (ORs), MOR23 and M72, and olfactory marker protein (OMP) to produce offspring that were heterozygous for MOR23-GFP, M72-GFP, or OMP-GFP and were either BACE1+/+ or BACE1-/-. BACE1-/- mice had olfactory bulbs (OBs) that were smaller and weighed less than OBs of BACE1+/+ mice. In wild-type mice, BACE1 was present in OSN axon terminals in OB glomeruli. In whole-mount preparations and tissue sections, many OB glomeruli from OMP-GFP; BACE1-/- mice were malformed compared to wild-type glomeruli. MOR23-GFP; BACE1-/- mice had an irregular MOR23 glomerulus that was innervated by randomly oriented, poorly fasciculated OSN axons compared to BACE1+/+ mice. Most importantly, M72-GFP; BACE1-/- mice exhibited M72 OSN axons that were mis-targeted to ectopic glomeruli, indicating impaired axon guidance in BACE1-/- mice.
Our results demonstrate that BACE1 is required for the accurate targeting of OSN axons and the proper formation of glomeruli in the OB, suggesting a role for BACE1 in axon guidance. OSNs continually undergo regeneration and hence require ongoing axon guidance. Neurogenesis and the regeneration of neurons and axons occur in other adult populations of peripheral and central neurons that also require axon guidance throughout life. Therefore, BACE1 inhibitors under development for the treatment of AD may potentially cause axon targeting defects in these neuronal populations as well.
Keywords: Aβ, BACE1, β-amyloid, β-secretase, Alzheimer's disease, axon guidance, axon targeting, glomerulus, odorant receptor, olfactory sensory neuron, olfactory bulb, olfactory system