In most inherited degenerative ataxias, selective loss of certain types of neurons occurs primarily in the cerebellum and brain stem despite widespread expression of the disease protein. Many of these selectively vulnerable neurons exhibit autonomous pacemaker firing. Neuronal dysfunction must precede the eventual loss of neurons in ataxia, but the nature of this neuronal dysfunction and its causal relationship to motor symptoms are not well established. My preliminary studies in a mouse model of the polyglutamine disorder Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 3 (SCA3) have identified altered firing properties of one class of pacemaker neurons, the cerebellar Purkinje neurons, and have shown that transiently correcting this aberrant physiology with a potassium channel activator improves the motor phenotype in SCA3 mice. The studies proposed here, which take advantage of my expertise in electrophysiology and will be performed in a leading SCA3 laboratory, will test the hypothesis that the selective neuronal vulnerability observed in SCA3, and possibly other polyglutamine ataxias, reflects alterations in the properties of neuronally expressed potassium channels. The proposal has 3 aims.
Aim 1 will examine the firing properties of various affected pacemaker neurons in SCA3 and determine whether alterations in potassium channel physiology can explain the observed changes in firing properties.
Aim 2 will determine the mechanism for polyglutamine disease protein-induced changes in potassium channel biophysics.
Aim 3 will examine whether modulators of potassium channel physiology can improve the motor symptoms in SCA3 mice. The overall objective of these studies is to determine whether such physiologic changes are promising targets for symptomatic or preventive treatment of these currently untreatable disorders. The impact of these studies will be to move the field of degenerative ataxias, which has focused primarily on changes in brain morphology and biochemistry, towards looking at specific, early and potentially modifiable changes in neuronal function. My career goal over the next five years is to become an independent researcher with the expertise to investigate the physiologic underpinnings of SCA3 and related ataxias and to design and test pharmacologic agents that can serve as a route to therapy for these currently untreatable disorders. My long term goal is to secure and succeed in a tenure-track faculty position at a neurology department at a major institution, combining the care of patients with movement disorders and heading a research laboratory that continues to interrogate the role of ion-channels in the pathogenesis of degenerative ataxic disorders.
Spinocerebellar ataxia type 3 (SCA3), the most common dominantly inherited form of ataxia, causes loss of balance and coordination in patients and is associated with a loss of nerve cells in certain brain regions, notably the cerebellum and brain stem. This proposal examines whether correcting perturbations in the electrical properties of nerve cells in these affected brain regions in SCA3 will lead to the development of new drugs to treat this currently untreatable, fatal disorder.
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