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PLoS Pathog. 2018 Sep 20;14(9):e1007283. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1007283. eCollection 2018 Sep.

Prions activate a p38 MAPK synaptotoxic signaling pathway.

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Department of Biochemistry, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston MA, United States of America.


Synaptic degeneration is one of the earliest pathological correlates of prion disease, and it is a major determinant of the progression of clinical symptoms. However, the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying prion synaptotoxicity are poorly understood. Previously, we described an experimental system in which treatment of cultured hippocampal neurons with purified PrPSc, the infectious form of the prion protein, induces rapid retraction of dendritic spines, an effect that is entirely dependent on expression of endogenous PrPC by the target neurons. Here, we use this system to dissect pharmacologically the underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms. We show that PrPSc initiates a stepwise synaptotoxic signaling cascade that includes activation of NMDA receptors, calcium influx, stimulation of p38 MAPK and several downstream kinases, and collapse of the actin cytoskeleton within dendritic spines. Synaptic degeneration is restricted to excitatory synapses, spares presynaptic structures, and results in decrements in functional synaptic transmission. Pharmacological inhibition of any one of the steps in the signaling cascade, as well as expression of a dominant-negative form of p38 MAPK, block PrPSc-induced spine degeneration. Moreover, p38 MAPK inhibitors actually reverse the degenerative process after it has already begun. We also show that, while PrPC mediates the synaptotoxic effects of both PrPSc and the Alzheimer's Aβ peptide in this system, the two species activate distinct signaling pathways. Taken together, our results provide powerful insights into the biology of prion neurotoxicity, they identify new, druggable therapeutic targets, and they allow comparison of prion synaptotoxic pathways with those involved in other neurodegenerative diseases.

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