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Novartis Found Symp. 2006;276:181-9; discussion 189-92, 233-7, 275-81.

Promoting neurotrophic effects by GPCR ligands.

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  • 1Molecular Neurobiology Program, Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine, Department of Cell Biology, New York University School of Medicine, NY 10016, USA.


The neurotrophins-nerve growth factor (NGF), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), NT-3 and NT-4-represent a family of proteins essential for neuronal survival and plasticity. Each neurotrophin can signal through two different transmembrane receptors, Trk receptor tyrosine kinases and the p75 neurotrophin receptor, the first member of the TNF receptor superfamily. Neurotrophic factors play an important role in neurodegenerative diseases, as well as neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression, bipolar disease and eating disorders. Indeed, a number of approaches have been taken to use neurotrophins to treat Alzheimer's dementia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and peripheral sensory neuropathy. However, many of these clinical trails have failed, due to problems in delivery and unforeseen side effects of neurotrophic factors. An alternative approach is to use ligands in the G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) family to transactivate trophic activities. We have discovered that treatment with adenosine, a neuromodulator that acts through G protein-coupled receptors, is capable of activating Trk tyrosine kinase receptors. Transactivation of neurotrophic receptors by GPCR ligands raise the possibility that small molecules may be used to elicit neurotrophic effects for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. This approach would allow for selective targeting of neurons that express specific G protein-coupled receptors and trophic factor receptors. GPCRs transduce information provided by extracellular signals to modulate synaptic activity and neurotransmission. In addition to the classical G protein signalling, GPCR ligands also activate receptor tyrosine kinases (RTK), including neurotrophin receptors. Activation of Trk neurotrophin receptors can occur by GPCR ligands in the absence of neurotrophins. Adenosine and PACAP (pituitary adenylate cyclase activating polypeptide) induce Trk activation specifically through their respective GPCRs to promote cell survival. Transactivation of Trks by GPCRs has emerged as a new theme in the biology of neurotrophin function. Although the precise role of transactivation is unknown, one possibility is that it adds a safety factor that might protect neurons from death in the absence of neurotrophins. Abnormal activity of the neurotrophin system has been implicated in several psychiatric and neurobiological illnesses. However, the lack of knowledge about the precise site of neurotrophin dysfunction has compromised the ability to improve the efficacy and the safety of drugs used in treatment modalities. If small-molecule GPCR ligands can ameliorate neuronal cell loss through Trk, transactivation may offer a new strategy for promoting trophic effects during neurodegeneration.

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