Spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) is a dominantly inherited neurodegenerative disorder characterized by progressive motor and cognitive dysfunction. Caused by an expanded polyglutamine tract in ataxin 1 (ATXN1), SCA1 pathogenesis involves a multifactorial process that likely begins with misfolding of ATXN1, which has functional consequences on its interactions, leading to transcriptional dysregulation. Because lithium has been shown to exert neuroprotective effects in a variety of conditions, possibly by affecting gene expression, we tested the efficacy of lithium treatment in a knock-in mouse model of SCA1 (Sca1154Q/2Q mice) that replicates many features of the human disease.
Methods and Findings
Sca1154Q/2Q mice and their wild-type littermates were fed either regular chow or chow that contained 0.2% lithium carbonate. Dietary lithium carbonate supplementation resulted in improvement of motor coordination, learning, and memory in Sca1154Q/2Q mice. Importantly, motor improvement was seen when treatment was initiated both presymptomatically and after symptom onset. Neuropathologically, lithium treatment attenuated the reduction of dendritic branching in mutant hippocampal pyramidal neurons. We also report that lithium treatment restored the levels of isoprenylcysteine carboxyl methyltransferase (Icmt; alternatively, Pccmt), down-regulation of which is an early marker of mutant ATXN1 toxicity.
The effect of lithium on a marker altered early in the course of SCA1 pathogenesis, coupled with its positive effect on multiple behavioral measures and hippocampal neuropathology in an authentic disease model, make it an excellent candidate treatment for human SCA1 patients.
Huda Zoghbi and colleagues show that lithium treatment initiated before or after disease onset improves multiple symptoms of neurodegeneration in a mouse model of spinocerebellar ataxia.
Spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) is an inherited, incurable neurodegenerative disease in which the neurons (cells that transmit information between the brain and body) in the cerebellum (the brain region that coordinates movement) gradually die. Symptoms of the disease, which usually begins in early adult life, include poor coordination of movement (ataxia), slurred speech, and cognitive (learning and memory) problems. As more neurons die, these symptoms get worse until breathing difficulties eventually cause death. SCA1 is a “triplet repeat disease.” Information for making proteins is stored in DNA as groups of three nucleotides (codons), each specifying a different amino acid (the building blocks of proteins). In triplet repeat diseases, patients inherit a mutant gene containing abnormally long stretches of repeated codons. In SCA1, the repeated codon is CAG, which specifies glutamine. Consequently, SCA1 is a “polyglutamine disease,” a group of neurodegenerative disorders in which an abnormal protein (a different one for each disease) containing a long stretch of glutamine forms nuclear inclusions (insoluble lumps of protein) in neurons that, possibly by trapping essential proteins, cause neuronal death. In SCA1, the abnormal protein is ataxin 1, which is made in many neurons including the cerebellar neurons (Purkinje cells) that coordinate movement.
Why Was This Study Done?
Early in SCA1, the production of several messenger RNAs (the templates for protein production) decreases, possibly because transcription factors (proteins that control gene expression) interact with the mutant protein. Could the progression of SCA1 be slowed, therefore, by using an agent that affects gene expression? In this study, the researchers have investigated whether lithium can slow disease progression in an animal model of SCA1. They chose lithium for their study because this drug (best known for stabilizing mood in people with bipolar [manic] depression) affects gene expression, is neuroprotective, and has beneficial effects in animal models of Huntington disease, another polyglutamine disease.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers bred mice carrying one mutant gene for ataxin 1 containing a very long CAG repeat and one normal gene (Sca1154Q/2Q mice; genes come in pairs). These mice develop symptoms similar to those seen in people with SCA1. After weaning, the mice and their normal littermates were fed normal food or food supplemented with lithium for several weeks before assessing their ability to coordinate their movements and testing their cognitive skills. Dietary lithium (given before or after symptoms appeared) improved both coordination and learning and memory in the Sca1154Q/2Q mice but had little effect in the normal mice. Lithium did not change the overall appearance of the cerebellum in the Sca1154Q/2Q mice nor reduce the occurrence of nuclear inclusions, but it did partly reverse hippocampal neuron degeneration in these animals. The researchers discovered this effect by examining the shape of the hippocampal neurons in detail. These neurons normally have extensive dendrites—branch-like projections that make contact with other cells—but these gradually disappear in Sca1154Q/2Q mice; lithium partly reversed this loss. Finally, lithium also restored the level of Icmt/Pccmt mRNA in the cerebellum to near normal in the Sca1154Q/2Q mice—this mRNA is one of the first to be reduced by ataxin 1 toxicity.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that treatment with lithium slows neurodegeneration in a mouse model of SCA1, even when it is given only after the first symptoms of the disease have appeared. Unfortunately, lithium did not improve the life span of the Sca1154Q/2Q mice (although this could be because the mutant SCA1 protein has some deleterious effects outside the brain). Thus, lithium is unlikely to cure SCA1, but it could provide some help to people with this devastating disease, even if (as is usual), their condition is not diagnosed until the disease is quite advanced. However, because drugs that work in animal models of diseases do not necessarily work in people, patients with SCA1 (or other polyglutamine diseases, which might also benefit from lithium supplementation) should not be treated with lithium until human trials of this approach have been completed.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040182.
The US National Ataxia Foundation provides information for patients
International Network of Ataxia Friends has information for patients and carergivers on ataxias, including SCA1
GeneTests provides information for health care providers and researchers about SCA1
Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) has detailed scientific information on SCA1
Huntington's Outreach Project for Education offers information for lay people from Stanford University on trinucleotide repeat disorders including SCA1