Role of α-synuclein penetration into the membrane in the mechanisms of oligomer pore formation

FEBS J. 2012 Mar;279(6):1000-13. doi: 10.1111/j.1742-4658.2012.08489.x. Epub 2012 Feb 27.


Parkinson's disease (PD) and dementia with Lewy bodies are common disorders of the aging population and characterized by the progressive accumulation of α-synuclein (α-syn) in the central nervous system. Aggregation of α-syn into oligomers with a ring-like appearance has been proposed to play a role in toxicity. However, the molecular mechanisms and the potential sequence of events involved in the formation of pore-like structures are unclear. We utilized computer modeling and cell-based studies to investigate the process of oligomerization of wild-type and A53T mutant α-syn in membranes. The studies suggest that α-syn penetrates the membrane rapidly, changing its conformation from α-helical towards a coiled structure. This penetration facilitates the incorporation of additional α-syn monomers in the complex, and the subsequent displacement of phospholipids and the formation of oligomers in the membrane. This process occurred more rapidly, and with a more favorable energy of interaction, for mutant A53T compared with wild-type α-syn. After 4 ns of simulation of the protein-membrane model, α-syn had penetrated through two-thirds of the membrane. By 9 ns, the penetration of the annular α-syn oligomers can result in the formation of pore-like structures that fully perforate the lipid bilayer. Experimental incubation of recombinant α-syn in synthetic membranes resulted in the formation of similar pore-like complexes. Moreover, mutant (A53T) α-syn had a greater tendency to accumulate in neuronal membrane fractions in cell cultures, resulting in greater neuronal permeability, as demonstrated with the calcein efflux assay. These studies provide a sequential molecular explanation for the process of α-syn oligomerization in the membrane, and support the role of formation of pore-like structures in the pathogenesis of the neurodegenerative process in PD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Lewy Body Disease / metabolism
  • Lipid Bilayers / metabolism
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Parkinson Disease / metabolism
  • Protein Structure, Secondary
  • Rats
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured
  • alpha-Synuclein / chemistry
  • alpha-Synuclein / metabolism*


  • Lipid Bilayers
  • alpha-Synuclein