A neuroscience lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, had inspiration for a research project come in an unusual way—via a 2015 email from the mother of a two-year-old girl who had learned to walk only with intensive physical therapy, and who could not yet speak or play like a typical child her age. After testing her daughter, physicians told the mother that a mutation in the synaptotagmin-1 (SYT1) gene could be the cause as heterozygous missense mutations in syt1 have recently been associated with a severe but heterogeneous developmental syndrome, termed syt1-associated neurodevelopmental disorder. Syt1 acts as a Ca 2+ sensor that synchronizes neurotransmitter release with Ca 2+ influx during action potential firing of a neuron.

The result of that mother’s email to Edwin Chapman, PhD, professor in the department of neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is a recent study showing how mutations in (syt1) can lead to a rare condition known as syt1-associated neurodevelopmental disorder. In this study, the researchers report the clinical, physiological, and biophysical characterization of three syt1 mutations from human patients.

The scientists’ discovery led them to identify a possible treatment, which is reported in the paper “Molecular basis of rare neurological disorder reveals potential treatment,” published in Neuron.

For nearly 30 years, Chapman, has studied the structure, function, and dynamics of the release of neurotransmitters from neurons. “What was remarkable for me at a personal level was how keen they were to find out exactly what had happened,” Chapman said. “I knew we could figure out the precise problem, and with the support of the parents, we delved into it.”

Syt1-associated neurodevelopmental disorder is extremely rare, with only 11 confirmed cases. These patients suffer from a constellation of difficulties, including developmental delays, eye abnormalities, involuntary movements, and agitation that can cause them to hurt themselves.

Within neurons, information travels as an electrical pulse. When the pulse reaches the end of a neuron, it triggers an influx of calcium ions. Syt1’s job, Chapman’s team had previously shown, is to detect and grab calcium. Then, the protein inserts itself into the neuron’s membrane, and sparks the release of chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These chemicals carry information to the next neuron.

The neural protein syt1 (left) grabs onto calcium (orange), triggering the release of chemicals that carry information between cells. Mutations in syt1 made it less responsive to calcium, researchers discovered. [Bradberry et al./Neuron 2020]
Scientists have studied this process thoroughly, but they know much less about how mutations in the syt1 protein can interfere with neuron-to-neuron communication. Mazdak Bradberry, an MD/PhD student in the Chapman lab and first author on the paper, took a close look at the mutated proteins made by the girl and two other patients.

Lab experiments with cultured neurons showed that each patient’s mutation interfered with neurotransmitter release, but to different degrees. In all cases, however, the altered syt1 protein became less responsive to calcium—in other words, it had a hard time detecting the signal to send out neurotransmitters, the researchers said.

“That made us think that if there was some way we could enhance calcium signaling, we might be able to help compensate for the protein’s defects,” Bradberry said.

He learned that a familiar drug, known as 4-AP, was already approved to treat the disorder multiple sclerosis. Because 4-AP prompts a greater-than-normal influx of calcium into neurons, Bradberry suspected it could help patients with SYT1 mutations.

In preliminary experiments to test the drug’s potential, the researchers used a technique devised by Loren Looger, PhD, a group leader at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, to make neurons in culture fluoresce when they release neurotransmitters. Neurons containing mutated syt1 proteins flashed only dimly under the microscope. But adding 4-AP boosted their fluorescence.

Because the drug has already been approved by the FDA, doctors for the three patients should be able to quickly get permission to treat them with it, said Hugo Bellen, PhD, professor at Baylor College of Medicine, and who was not involved with the study. The new work helps explain how certain genetic errors can disrupt neurotransmitter release and lead to a neurological disorder, he said.

Bradberry has cautiously shared the results of the team’s 4-AP experiments with the patients and their doctors, so they can decide if they want to try it. He and Chapman emphasize that a drug like 4-AP will not cure patients like the three in the study, because it cannot reverse changes that have already occurred in the developing brain. However, it might reduce symptoms.

“Behaviors seen in this condition, like self-injurious hitting, impact patients’ and caregivers’ lives, and it’s possible these could be addressed by whatever treatment we are able to offer,” Bradberry said.

Chapman agreed. “If it brings any relief at all, it will be incredibly satisfying for us.”

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