The use of histone deacetylase inhibitors (HDACIs) as a therapeutic tool for neurodegenerative disorders has been examined with great interest in the last decade. The functional response to treatment with broad-spectrum inhibitors however, has been heterogeneous: protective in some cases and detrimental in others. In this review we discuss potential underlying causes for these apparently contradictory results. Because HDACs are part of repressive complexes, the functional outcome has been characteristically attributed to enhanced gene expression due to increased acetylation of lysine residues on nucleosomal histones. However, it is important to take into consideration that the up-regulation of diverse sets of genes (i.e. pro-apoptotic and anti-apoptotic) may orchestrate different responses in diverse cell types. An alternative possibility is that broad-spectrum pharmacological inhibition may target nuclear or cytosolic HDAC isoforms, with distinct non-histone substrates (i.e. transcription factors; cytoskeletal proteins). Thus, for any given neurological disorder, it is important to take into account the effect of HDACIs on neuronal, glial and inflammatory cells and define the relative contribution of distinct HDAC isoforms to the pathological process. This review article addresses how opposing effects on distinct cell types may profoundly influence the overall therapeutic potential of HDAC inhibitors when investigating treatments for neurodegenerative disorders.
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