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Groundbreaking Discovery in Neuronal Mitochondrial Transport

Discover the breakthrough molecular complex that's revolutionizing our understanding of neuronal energy transport, with implications for treating neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers. A scientific leap that could unlock new therapeutic horizons.

Newly Identified Molecular Complex Holds Key to Neuronal Energy Distribution and Potential Disease Treatments

In a groundbreaking discovery that could pave the way for new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases, researchers have identified a molecular complex that plays a crucial role in the transport of mitochondria within neurons. This study, recently published in the journal Science Signaling, reveals the existence of a complex unique to highly evolved mammals, which could be instrumental in combating conditions like Parkinson's disease, neuromuscular diseases, and even certain types of cancer.

The Brain's Energy Demands and Mitochondrial Transport

The human brain, an organ with a voracious appetite for energy, consumes up to a quarter of the body's energy needs. This energy is primarily generated by mitochondria, the cell's powerhouses, which need to be precisely distributed within neurons to support their functions.

Key points from the study include:

  • Identification of the Alex3/Gαq molecular complex that regulates mitochondrial transport in neurons.

  • The complex is exclusive to evolved mammals, suggesting its potential as a therapeutic target.

  • Disruption of this system can lead to motor deficits and neuronal death.

Collaborative Research Effort

Led by Professor Eduardo Soriano of the University of Barcelona and the Institute of Neurosciences of the UB (UBneuro), and researcher Anna María Aragay from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the Institute of Molecular Biology of Barcelona (IBMB-CSIC), the study was conducted using animal models and cell cultures. The team included first authors Ismael Izquierdo-Villalba (IBMB-CSIC), Serena Mirra, and Yasmina Manso (UB-CIBERNED), with collaboration from Adolfo López de Munain, Xavier Navarro, and José Antonio Enríquez.

Significance of Mitochondrial Distribution in Neurons

"In neurons, the transport process of mitochondria is determining, since these organelles must be present along all axons and dendrites — neuron extensions — to provide energy to the neurotransmission and the neuronal functions, processes that require a lot of energy. This great consumption depends on a specific and precise distribution of mitochondria within neurons," explains Professor Eduardo Soriano, co-director of the study and member of the Department of Cell Biology, Physiology and Immunology at the UB's Faculty of Biology, as reported.

The Alex3/Gαq Mitochondrial Complex

The researchers discovered that the Alex3/Gαq mitochondrial complex interacts with the cell's transport machinery to distribute mitochondria along the neuron's extensions. The interaction between the Gq protein and the Alex3 mitochondrial protein is vital for this process.

"For the first time, we found that the Alex3/Gαq complex is essential not only for the transport and mitochondrial function but also for neuronal physiology, movement control, and neuronal viability," states Aragay, co-director of the study. „If this system is inactivated, for example, in mice with a specific deficiency of the Alex3 protein in the central nervous system, the mitochondrial trafficking is reduced, leading to less dendritic and axonal arborization, causing motor deficits and even neuronal death.“

GPCR Receptors and Mitochondrial Function

The study also reveals that the Alex3/Gαq mitochondrial complex is regulated through G protein-coupled receptors (GPCR), which are activated by various molecules including neurotransmitters, hormones, and cannabinoids. These receptors can alter not only mitochondrial distribution but also their function, affecting neuronal growth and viability.

Therapeutic Implications and Future Research

With this newfound understanding, the team suggests that molecules interacting with GPCRs could regulate multiple aspects of mitochondrial biology through these receptors. This opens up the possibility of controlling mitochondrial biology from outside the cell, offering potential therapeutic strategies for diseases linked to mitochondrial or metabolic dysfunction.

Professor Gemma Marfany, co-author of the study, suggested that the absence of inactivating mutations in the Alex3 gene within the thousands of human genomes analyzed could imply its significant role in bodily functions. She noted that the complete absence of this gene is likely not compatible with life, and instead, it might appear as a somatic mutation within tumors.

These data revealed a mammalian-specific Alex3/Gαq mitochondrial complex, which enables control of mitochondrial trafficking and neuronal death by GPCRs.
Ismael Izquierdo-Villalba et al.,A mammalian-specific Alex3/Gαqprotein complex regulates mitochondrial trafficking, dendritic complexity, and neuronal survival.Sci. Signal.17,eabq1007(2024).DOI:10.1126/scisignal.abq1007

Conclusion and Study Abstract

The complexities of mitochondrial trafficking in neurons are highlighted in the study's abstract, emphasizing the critical role of the Alex3/Gαq complex in this process. Its impact on mitochondrial trafficking and distribution, dendritic arborization, and, ultimately, neuronal survival underscores the potential therapeutic significance of this discovery.

As the researchers continue to explore the implications of their findings, this study stands as a testament to the intricate interplay between cellular components and the vast potential for novel treatments for a range of debilitating human diseases.