Cofilin and drebrin mediated regulation of the neuronal cytoskeleton in development and disease
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Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Reason for embargo
To allow publication of the major findings of this work.
The brain is a highly complex structure; neurons extend axons which follow precise paths to make connections with their targets. This extension is guided by a specialised and highly motile structure at the axon tip -the growth cone- which integrates guidance cues to steer the axon through the environment. Aberrant pathfinding is likely to result in developmental impairments causing disruption to brain functions underlying emotion learning and memory. Furthermore, pre-existing connections are constantly remodelled, the ability to do so declines with age, and can have huge impacts on quality of life and well-being. Examining how changes in growth cone behaviour triggered by external cues occurs is crucial for understanding processes in both development and disease. Controlled reorganisation of growth cone cytoskeletal components, such as actin filaments, generate membrane protrusions forming lamellipodia and filopodia. Filopodium formation is commonly associated with sensing the mechanical and chemical environment of the cell. Despite our understanding of the guidance choices that can be made, how filopodia transmit information at a molecular level leading to profound changes in morphology, motility and directionality remains largely unknown. Various actin-binding proteins regulate the number, stability and branching of filopodia. They may therefore have a key role in priming or abrogating the ability of the growth cone to respond to a given guidance cue. I have shown that the actin binding proteins drebrin and cofilin, whilst displaying opposing molecular activities on actin filaments, work synergistically in a temporally regulated manner. A fluorescent membrane marker combined with tagged cofilin and drebrin enabled accurate correlation of cofilin and drebrin dynamics with growth cone morphology and filopodial turnover in live neurons. In contrast to previous in vitro experiments, cofilin was found to enhance the effect of drebrin to promote filopodia formation in intact neurons, and that growth cone spread was significantly constrained when cofilin was knocked down. Importantly, this adds to our understanding of how the two actin binding proteins contribute to directed motility in neuronal growth cone filopodia during guidance. Furthermore, following acute treatment with low concentrations of the repulsive guidance cue semaphorin-3A, neuronal growth cones expressing cofilin displayed increased morphological complexity and filopodial stability. This suggests that traditional collapse signals may serve as pause signals allowing neurons to increase the surface area to sense the environment adequately and enable precise wiring decisions. Remodeling of the cytoskeleton is perturbed in a number of degenerative diseases including Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. These conditions are associated with widespread synaptic loss, resulting in memory loss, cognitive impairment, and movement disorders which leads to severe deterioration in quality of life for those afflicted in addition to wider negative socioeconomic impacts. How widespread synaptic loss occurs is poorly understood. One common characteristic is neuronal stress which can be initiated through different conditions such as neuroinflammation, energetic stress, glutamate excitotoxicity, and accumulation of misfolded proteins, all of which have been associated with perturbation of the actin cytoskeleton and the initiation of the cofilin-actin rod stress response. Dysfunction of the cytoskeleton can lead to the disruption of synaptic activity by blocking the delivery of elements such as organelles and proteins required for maintenance of the synapse. Modulating this stress response offers an approach to protecting the integrity of normal synaptic function. Actin interacting protein-1 is a conserved actin binding protein that enhances the filament disassembly activity of cofilin. I have discovered that AIP-1 has a potent ability to prevent the formation of cofilin rods which are thought to contribute to the neuronal dysfunction in several neurodegenerative disorders, even when they are treated with amyloid-β or subjected to metabolic stress. This is the first study to demonstrate a molecular mechanism for preventing rod formation in the presence of a neuronal stressor and has the potential to protect against rod formation by other stressors associated with disease such as inflammation and excitotoxicity. AIP-1 offers the exciting possibility of a means to reverse cofilin rod formation and the subsequent cytoskeletal pathology associated with dementia and has potential for therapeutic exploitation in human disease. Furthermore, it is the first study to demonstrate that AIP-1 localises to areas of rapid actin remodeling in neuronal growth cones. Exploiting the action of AIP-1 therefore represents an exciting and novel therapeutic avenue to tackle neurodegeneration.
University of Exeter Medical School
PhD in Medical Studies