UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Altering cortical input unmasks synaptic phenotypes in the YAC128 cortico-striatal co-culture model of Huntington disease Schmidt, Mandi E; Buren, Caodu; Mackay, James P; Cheung, Daphne; Dal Cengio, Louisa; Raymond, Lynn A; Hayden, Michael R


Background: Huntington disease (HD) is a fatal neurodegenerative disorder caused by a CAG expansion in the huntingtin (HTT) gene, leading to selective and progressive neuronal death predominantly in the striatum. Mutant HTT expression causes dysfunctional cortico-striatal (CS) transmission, loss of CS synapses, and striatal medium spiny neuron (MSN) dendritic spine instability prior to neuronal death. Co-culturing cortical and striatal neurons in vitro promotes the formation of functional CS synapses and is a widely used approach to elucidate pathogenic mechanisms of HD and to validate potential synapto-protective therapies. A number of relevant in vivo synaptic phenotypes from the YAC128 HD mouse model, which expresses full-length transgenic human mutant HTT, are recapitulated in CS co-culture by 21 days in vitro (DIV). However, striatal spine loss, which occurs in HD patients and in vivo animal models, has been observed in YAC128 CS co-culture in some studies but not in others, leading to difficulties in reproducing and interpreting results. Here, we investigated whether differences in the relative proportion of cortical and striatal neurons alter YAC128 synaptic phenotypes in this model. Results: YAC128 MSNs in 1:1 CS co-culture exhibited impaired dendritic length and complexity compared to wild-type, whereas reducing cortical input using a 1:3 CS ratio revealed a dramatic loss of YAC128 MSN dendritic spines. Chimeric experiments determined that this spine instability was primarily cell autonomous, depending largely on mutant HTT expression in striatal neurons. Moreover, we found that spontaneous electrophysiological MSN activity correlated closely with overall dendritic length, with no differences observed between genotypes in 1:3 co-cultures despite significant YAC128 spine loss. Finally, limiting cortical input with a 1:3 CS ratio impaired the basal survival of YAC128 neurons at DIV21, and this was partially selective for dopamine- and cAMP-regulated phosphoprotein 32-positive MSNs. Conclusions: Our findings reconcile previous discordant reports of spine loss in this model, and improve the utility and reliability of the CS co-culture for the development of novel therapeutic strategies for HD.

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