Patients with Krabbe disease, a genetic demyelinating syndrome caused by deficiency of galactosyl-ceramidase and the resulting accumulation of galactosyl-sphingolipids, develop signs of a dying-back axonopathy compounded by a deficiency of large-caliber axons. Here, we show that axonal caliber in Twitcher mice, an animal model for Krabbe disease, is impaired in peripheral axons and is accompanied by a progressive reduction in the abundance and phosphorylation of the three neurofilament (NF) subunits. These changes correlate with an increase in the density of NFs per cross-sectional area in numerous mutant peripheral axons and abnormal increases in the activity of two serine/threonine phosphatases (PP1 and PP2A) in mutant tissue. Similarly, acutely isolated mutant cortical neurons show abnormal phosphorylation of NFs. Psychosine, the neurotoxin accumulated in Krabbe disease, was sufficient to induce abnormal dephosphorylation of NF subunits in a normal motor neuron cell line as well as in acutely isolated normal cortical neurons. This in vitro effect was mediated by PP1 and PP2A, which specifically dephosphorylated NFs. These results demonstrate that the reduced caliber observed in some axons in Krabbe disease involves abnormal dephosphorylation of NFs. We propose that a psychosine-driven pathogenic mechanism through deregulated phosphotransferase activities may be involved in this process.
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