A molecule that aids the process of discarding weak and unwanted neural circuits in the brain, if malfunctioning, could lead to disorders such as autism and dementia, according to a study from Japan.
As the brain develops in utero and in early life, neurons and their connecting synapses branch out rapidly - like a tree. Over time, these connections become more refined and purposeful via a series of molecular mechanisms that prune the connections. Like a gardener trims a tree, weaker branches are discarded to redirect nutrients to help nurture the stronger branches.
However, genetic and environmental mutations can misguide this process and eliminate far too many synapses or not nearly enough. Either extreme can result in a myriad of neuropsychiatric disorders from autism spectrum disorder to schizophrenia to dementia.
The authors published their results in the journal Neuron.
In a typically developing brain, a type of neuron called a Purkinje cell is furnished with climbing fibers. "Among multiple climbing fibers innervating each Purkinje cell in the neonatal cerebellum, a single climbing fiber is strengthened and maintained throughout an animal's life, whereas the other climbing fibers are weakened and eventually eliminated," Kano says. "Our goal was to identify a new molecule involved in strengthening and maintaining single climbing fiber inputs."
Kano and his team found that progranulin - a protein known to be involved in certain forms of dementia - also works to maintain developing climbing fiber inputs, counteracting the initial elimination. They studied a mouse model engineered without progranulin and found that climbing fibers were more quickly eliminated and climbing fiber input overall was significantly reduced.
"Our results provide a new insight into the roles of progranulin in the developing brain," says Kano. "We will continue to search molecules involved in synapse elimination in the developing cerebellum and, ultimately, we want to elucidate entire signaling cascades for synapse elimination."
Although the researchers do not yet know how to effectively manipulate the molecule, it's possible that progranulin signaling may be a potential therapeutic target for neuropsychiatric disorders.