Degeneration of serotonergic neurons in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: a link to spasticity

Brain. 2013 Feb;136(Pt 2):483-93. doi: 10.1093/brain/aws274. Epub 2012 Oct 31.


Spasticity is a common and disabling symptom observed in patients with central nervous system diseases, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease affecting both upper and lower motor neurons. In amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, spasticity is traditionally thought to be the result of degeneration of the upper motor neurons in the cerebral cortex, although degeneration of other neuronal types, in particular serotonergic neurons, might also represent a cause of spasticity. We performed a pathology study in seven patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and six control subjects and observed that central serotonergic neurons suffer from a degenerative process with prominent neuritic degeneration, and sometimes loss of cell bodies in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Moreover, distal serotonergic projections to spinal cord motor neurons and hippocampus systematically degenerated in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. In SOD1 (G86R) mice, a transgenic model of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, serotonin levels were decreased in brainstem and spinal cord before onset of motor symptoms. Furthermore, there was noticeable atrophy of serotonin neuronal cell bodies along with neuritic degeneration at disease onset. We hypothesized that degeneration of serotonergic neurons could underlie spasticity in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and investigated this hypothesis in vivo using tail muscle spastic-like contractions in response to mechanical stimulation as a measure of spasticity. In SOD1 (G86R) mice, tail muscle spastic-like contractions were observed at end-stage. Importantly, they were abolished by 5-hydroxytryptamine-2b/c receptors inverse agonists. In line with this, 5-hydroxytryptamine-2b receptor expression was strongly increased at disease onset. In all, we show that serotonergic neurons degenerate during amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and that this might underlie spasticity in mice. Further research is needed to determine whether inverse agonists of 5-hydroxytryptamine-2b/c receptors could be of interest in treating spasticity in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / epidemiology
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / pathology*
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscle Spasticity / epidemiology
  • Muscle Spasticity / pathology*
  • Nerve Degeneration / epidemiology
  • Nerve Degeneration / pathology*
  • Serotonergic Neurons / pathology*