A gene that plays a role in the pruning of synapses has been linked to schizophrenia. The gene encodes an immune protein called complement component 4 (C4), which may mediate the pruning of synapses, the connections between neurons. Researchers led by Aswin Sekar found that in mice, C4 was responsible for the elimination of synapses. The team linked gene variants that lead to more production of C4A proteins to excessive pruning of synapses during adolescence, the period during which schizophrenia symptoms typically appear. This may explain why the brains of people with schizophrenia have fewer neural connections. The researchers hope that future therapies may target the genetic roots of the illness rather than simply treating its symptoms.
Autism spectrum disorders are associated with developmental abnormalities at excitatory synapses. Dendrites, the branched projections of neurons where electrical signals are passed from one cell to the next, are covered in hundreds to thousands of spines that facilitate the synaptic connections with other neurons. These spines are created and also pruned as part of normal learning and development.
Post-mortem examination of the brains of patients with autism spectrum disorders shows increased density of dendritic spines and less pruning in certain neurons in the temporal lobe. These examinations also show impaired mTOR autophagy. MTOR is a protein that plays a role in cell growth and survival. Autophagy is the normal process by which some components of cells are broken down.
A 2014 study by Guomei Tang et al. in the journal Neuron showed that mice that are genetically altered to have overactive mTOR also have reduced dendritic spine pruning, blockade of autophagy, and increased autism-like behaviors. An immunosuppressant drug called rapamycin inhibits mTOR, and treating the mice with this drug corrected the problems with spine pruning and the autism-like behaviors. (This was not true for mice who had been altered to have another type of autophagy.) Normal spine formation was not affected by the restored pruning ability.
Tang et al. concluded that mTOR autophagy plays an important role in dendritic spine pruning, and that restoring neuronal autophagy can correct synaptic abnormalities and restore normative social behavior in mice with hyperactive mTOR.
The brain contains neurons, which transmit electrical impulses, and glia, which protect and support neurons. New evidence suggests that some types of glia also play a role in pruning back overabundant neurons that are produced as the brain develops in utero.
Researcher Beth Stevens reports that astrocytes secrete a protein called transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta). TGF-beta is a cytokine, or regulating protein, that activates brain microglia to initiate a complement cascade (C1 to C3), a series of chemical changes that destroy unnecessary neurons and synapses.
The various proteins involved in a complement cascade are numbered. This complement cascade starts with C1q and is continued by C4, C2, and C3, which initiate phagocytosis (or eating up) of the axon terminals of the underutilized neurons, sparing those that are active.
Inflammation and other changes in glia could cause either deficient or excess pruning of neurons, which has been thought to occur in neuropsychiatric disorders such as autism or schizophrenia.