Aberrant Regulation of DNA Methylation in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis: A New Target of Disease Mechanisms
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is the third most common adult-onset neurodegenerative disease. A diagnosis is fatal owing to degeneration of motor neurons in brain and spinal cord that control swallowing, breathing, and movement. ALS can be inherited, but most cases are not associated with a family history of the disease. The mechanisms causing motor neuron death in ALS are still unknown. Given the suspected complex interplay between multiple genes, the environment, metabolism, and lifestyle in the pathogenesis of ALS, we have hypothesized that the mechanisms of disease in ALS involve epigenetic contributions that can drive motor neuron degeneration. DNA methylation is an epigenetic mechanism for gene regulation engaged by DNA methyltransferase (Dnmt)-catalyzed methyl group transfer to carbon-5 in cytosine residues in gene regulatory promoter and nonpromoter regions. Recent genome-wide analyses have found differential gene methylation in human ALS. Neuropathologic assessments have revealed that motor neurons in human ALS show significant abnormalities in Dnmt1, Dnmt3a, and 5-methylcytosine. Similar changes are seen in mice with motor neuron degeneration, and Dnmt3a was found abundantly at synapses and in mitochondria. During apoptosis of cultured motor neuron-like cells, Dnmt1 and Dnmt3a protein levels increase, and 5-methylcytosine accumulates. Enforced expression of Dnmt3a, but not Dnmt1, induces degeneration of cultured neurons. Truncation mutation of the Dnmt3a catalytic domain and Dnmt3a RNAi blocks apoptosis of cultured neurons. Inhibition of Dnmt catalytic activity with small molecules RG108 and procainamide protects motor neurons from excessive DNA methylation and apoptosis in cell culture and in a mouse model of ALS. Thus, motor neurons can engage epigenetic mechanisms to cause their degeneration, involving Dnmts and increased DNA methylation. Aberrant DNA methylation in vulnerable cells is a new direction for discovering mechanisms of ALS pathogenesis that could be relevant to new disease target identification and therapies for ALS.