Rare disease yields clues about broader brain pathology

November 21, 2013 by David Tenenbaum
A mutant gene that causes the deadly Alexander disease creates an overgrowth of the protein GFAP in mouse brain cells called astrocytes (right) compared to normal brain cells (left).

(Medical Xpress)—Alexander disease is a devastating brain disease that almost nobody has heard of—unless someone in the family is afflicted with it. Alexander disease strikes young or old, and in children destroys white matter in the front of the brain. Many patients, especially those with early onset, have significant intellectual disabilities.

Regardless of the age when it begins, Alexander disease is always fatal. It typically results from mutations in a gene known as GFAP (glial fibrillary acidic protein), leading to the formation of fibrous clumps of protein inside called astrocytes.

Classically, astrocytes and other glial cells were considered "helpers" that nourish and protect the neurons that do the actual communication. But in recent years, it's become clear that are much more than passive bystanders, and may be active culprits in many neurological diseases.

Now, in a report in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at UW-Madison show that Alexander disease also affects neurons, and in a way that impacts several measures of learning and memory.

Mice were engineered to contain the same mutation in GFAP that is found in human patients. Their astrocytes spontaneously increased production of GFAP, the same response found after many types of injury or disease in the brain. In Alexander disease, the result is an increase in mutant GFAP that is "toxic to the cell, and unfortunately astrocytes respond by making more GFAP," says first author Tracy Hagemann, an associate scientist with the university's Waisman Center.

While GFAP is usually found in astrocytes, it also occurs in , a population of cells that persist in some areas of the brain to continually spawn new neurons throughout adulthood. In the mouse versions of Alexander disease, neural stem cells are present, but they fail to develop into neurons, Hagemann says. "Think of a garden where your green beans never sprouted. Was it too cold for them to sprout, or were they bad seeds? Something similar is happening with these neural stem cells. They are present, but inert, and we're not sure why."

The shortage of new neurons could explain why the mice with excess GFAP failed a test that required them to remember the location of a submerged platform in a tub of water.

The report is "the first to suggest that the problems in Alexander disease extend beyond just the and astrocytes, and may provide a clue to the problems with learning and memory that are such prominent features in the human disease," says lab leader Albee Messing, a professor of comparative biosciences in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine.

One immediate question that the team will try to answer is whether the same defect in stem cells can be found in autopsy samples stored over many years to allow just this kind of investigation.

Still to be clarified is whether the mutation affects the neural stem cells directly, or whether it acts through other astrocytes that are nearby. "We do know that the astrocytes become activated with this GFAP mutation," Hagemann says. "That activation—a kind of inflammation—could be making the environment hostile to young neurons. Or the mutation could be changing the neural stem cells themselves in some other way.

"Medicine advances by teasing things apart," says Hagemann. "A single mutation can work in different ways—through different chains of cause and effect leading to different symptoms of a disease. In this case it's like the old question of nature versus nurture. Was the stem cell born bad—was it genetically doomed? Or were the reactive astrocytes in the neighborhood a toxic influence? Or both? This is an important question for Alexander disease and other brain deteriorating disorders, especially with the current focus on as a source for new neurons and therapy."

Already, the Waisman group is screening drugs that might slow GFAP production. Eventually, Hagemann says, the work may illuminate the role of astrocyte dysfunction in other neural diseases featuring aggregates of misformed proteins, including ALS, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's disease.

Explore further: Astrocytes control the generation of new neurons from neural stem cells

Related Stories

Keeping it local: Protecting the brain starts at the synapse

October 22, 2013

New research by scientists at UC San Francisco shows that one of the brain's fundamental self-protection mechanisms depends on coordinated, finely calibrated teamwork among neurons and non-neural cells knows as glial cells, ...

Recommended for you

New insights on how cocaine changes the brain

November 25, 2015

The burst of energy and hyperactivity that comes with a cocaine high is a rather accurate reflection of what's going on in the brain of its users, finds a study published November 25 in Cell Reports. Through experiments conducted ...

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

Umbilical cells help eye's neurons connect

November 24, 2015

Cells isolated from human umbilical cord tissue have been shown to produce molecules that help retinal neurons from the eyes of rats grow, connect and survive, according to Duke University researchers working with Janssen ...

Brain connections predict how well you can pay attention

November 24, 2015

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On The Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed ...

No cable spaghetti in the brain

November 24, 2015

Our brain is a mysterious machine. Billions of nerve cells are connected such that they store information as efficiently as books are stored in a well-organized library. To this date, many details remain unclear, for instance ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.