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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Jan 31;109(5):1737-42. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1110789109. Epub 2012 Jan 17.

Aβ neurotoxicity depends on interactions between copper ions, prion protein, and N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors.

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Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Hotchkiss Brain Institute, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada T2N 4N1.


N-methyl-d-aspartate receptors (NMDARs) mediate critical CNS functions, whereas excessive activity contributes to neuronal damage. At physiological glycine concentrations, NMDAR currents recorded from cultured rodent hippocampal neurons exhibited strong desensitization in the continued presence of NMDA, thus protecting neurons from calcium overload. Reducing copper availability by specific chelators (bathocuproine disulfonate, cuprizone) induced nondesensitizing NMDAR currents even at physiologically low glycine concentrations. This effect was mimicked by, and was not additive with, genetic ablation of cellular prion protein (PrP(C)), a key copper-binding protein in the CNS. Acute ablation of PrP(C) by enzymatically cleaving its cell-surface GPI anchor yielded similar effects. Biochemical studies and electrophysiological measurements revealed that PrP(C) interacts with the NMDAR complex in a copper-dependent manner to allosterically reduce glycine affinity for the receptor. Synthetic human Aβ(1-42) (10 nM-5 μM) produced an identical effect that could be mitigated by addition of excess copper ions or NMDAR blockers. Taken together, Aβ(1-42), copper chelators, or PrP(C) inactivation all enhance the activity of glycine at the NMDAR, giving rise to pathologically large nondesensitizing steady-state NMDAR currents and neurotoxicity. We propose a physiological role for PrP(C), one that limits excessive NMDAR activity that might otherwise promote neuronal damage. In addition, we provide a unifying molecular mechanism whereby toxic species of Aβ(1-42) might mediate neuronal and synaptic injury, at least in part, by disrupting the normal copper-mediated, PrP(C)-dependent inhibition of excessive activity of this highly calcium-permeable glutamate receptor.

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