Huntington’s disease (HD) is a neurodegenerative condition characterized by severe neuronal loss in the cortex and striatum that leads to motor and behavioral deficits. Excitotoxicity is thought to be involved in HD and several studies have indicated that NMDA receptor (NMDAR) overactivation can play a role in the selective neuronal loss found in HD. Interestingly, a small subset of striatal neurons (less than 1% of the overall population) is found to be spared in post-mortem HD brains. These neurons are medium-sized aspiny interneurons that highly express the neuronal isoform of nitric oxide synthase (nNOS). Intriguingly, neurons expressing large amounts of nNOS [hereafter indicated as nNOS(+) neurons] show reduced vulnerability to NMDAR-mediated excitotoxicity. Mechanisms underlying this reduced vulnerability are still largely unknown and may shed some light on pathogenic mechanisms involved in HD. One untested possibility is that nNOS(+) neurons possess fewer or less functioning NMDARs. Employing single cell calcium imaging we challenged this hypothesis and found that cultured striatal nNOS(+) neurons show NMDAR-evoked responses that are identical to the ones observed in the overall population of neurons that express lower levels of nNOS [nNOS(−) neurons]. NMDAR-dependent deregulation of intraneuronal Ca2+ is known to generate high levels of reactive oxygen species of mitochondrial origin (mt-ROS), a crucial step in the excitotoxic cascade. With confocal imaging and dihydrorhodamine (DHR; a ROS-sensitive probe) we compared mt-ROS levels generated by NMDAR activation in nNOS(+) and (−) cultured striatal neurons. DHR experiments revealed that nNOS(+) neurons failed to produce significant amounts of mt-ROS in response to NMDA exposure, thereby providing a potential mechanism for their reduced vulnerability to excitotoxicity and decreased vulnerability in HD.
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