An axon self-destruct mechanism that kills neurons

Just as losing a limb can spare a life, parting with a damaged axon by way of Wallerian degeneration can spare a neuron. A protein called SARM1 acts as the self-destruct button, and now researchers led by Jeffrey Milbrandt of Washington University Medical School in St. Louis believe they have figured out how. They report in the April 24 Science that SARM1 forms dimers that trigger the destruction of NAD+. Basic biochemistry dictates that this enzyme cofactor is essential for cell survival.

ARM1 and NAD+ have emerged as key players in the complex, orderly process underlying Wallerian degeneration. Scientists are still filling in other parts of the pathway. SARM1, short for sterile alpha and TIR motif-containing 1, seems to act as a damage sensor, but researchers are not sure how. Recently, researchers led by Marc Tessier-Lavigne at Rockefeller University, New York, found that SARM1 turns on a mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase cascade that is involved. Loss of NAD+ may also contribute to axon degeneration, because its concentration drops in dying axons, and Wlds mutant mice that overproduce an NAD+ synthase have slower Wallerian degeneration.

Now, first author Josiah Gerdts confirms that SARM1 is the self-destruct switch. He engineered a version of the protein with a target sequence for tobacco etch virus (TEV) protease embedded in it. Using a rapamycin-activated form of TEV, he eliminated SARM1 from axons he had sliced off of mouse dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons. Without SARM1, the severed axons survived.

SARM1 contains SAM and TIR domains, which promote protein-protein interactions. Previously, Gerdts discovered that the TIR domain was sufficient to induce degeneration, even in healthy axons, but it relied on the SAM region to bring multiple SARM1 molecules together. He hypothesized that axonal SARM1 multimerizes upon axon damage. To test this idea, he used a standard biochemical technique to force the SARM1 TIR domains together. He fused domains to one or another of the rapamycin-binding peptides Frb and Fkbp and expressed them in DRG neurons. When he added rapamycin to the cultures, the Frb and Fkbp snapped the TIR domains together within minutes. As Gerdts had predicted, this destroyed axons, confirming that SARM1 activates via dimerization.

Next, the authors investigated what happens to NAD+ during that process. Using high-performance liquid chromatography, Gerdts measured the concentration of NAD+ in the disembodied axons. Normally, its level dropped by about two-thirds within 15 minutes of severing. In axons from SARM1 knockout mice, however, the NAD+ concentration stayed unchanged. In neurons carrying the forced-dimerization constructs, adding rapamycin was sufficient to knock down NAD+ levels—Gerdts did not even have to cut the axons. Ramping up NAD+ production by overexpressing its synthases, NMNAT and NAMPT, overcame the effects of TIR dimerization, and the axons survived. Gerdts concluded that loss of NAD+ was a crucial, SARM1-controlled step on the way to degeneration.

He still wondered what caused the loss of NAD+. It might be that the axon simply stopped making it, or maybe the Wallerian pathway actively destroyed it. To distinguish between these possibilities, Gerdts added radiolabeled exogenous NAD+ to human embryonic kidney HEK293 cultures expressing the forced-dimerization TIR domains. Rapamycin caused them to rapidly degrade the radioactive NAD+, confirming that the cell actively disposes of it.

Gerdts suspects that with this essential cofactor gone, the axon runs out of energy and can no longer survive. He speculated that the MAP kinase cascade reportedly turned on by SARM1 might lead to NAD+ destruction. Alternatively, SARM1 might induce distinct MAP kinase and NAD+ destruction pathways in parallel, he suggested.

“Demonstrating how NAD+ is actively and locally degraded in the axon is a big advance,” commented Andrew Pieper of the Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, who was not involved in the study. Jonathan Gilley and Michael Coleman of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, U.K., predict that there will be more to the story. They note that a drug called FK866, which prevents NAD+ production, protects axons in some instances. Gerdts suggested that FK866 acts on processes upstream of SARM1, delaying the start of axon degeneration. In contrast, his paper only addressed what happens after SARM1 activates. “It will be fascinating to see how the apparent contradictions raised by this new study will be resolved,” wrote Gilley and Coleman.

Could these findings help researchers looking for ways to prevent neurodegeneration? “The study supports the notion that augmenting NAD+ levels is potentially a valuable approach,” said Pieper. He and his colleagues developed a small molecule that enhances NAD+ synthesis, now under commercial development. It improved symptoms in ALS model mice, and protected neurons in mice mimicking Parkinson’s. NAD+ also activates sirtuin, an enzyme important for longevity and stress resistance as well as learning and memory.

However, both Pieper and Gerdts cautioned that they cannot clearly predict which conditions might benefit from an anti-SARM1 or NAD+-boosting therapy. At this point, Gerdts said, researchers do not fully understand how much axon degeneration contributes to symptoms of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. He suggested that crossing SARM1 knockout mice with models for various neurodegenerative conditions would indicate how well an anti-Wallerian therapy might work.

—Amber Dance

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