Friedreich ataxia: failure of GABA-ergic and glycinergic synaptic transmission in the dentate nucleus

J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 2015 Feb;74(2):166-76. doi: 10.1097/NEN.0000000000000160.


Atrophy of large neurons in the dentate nucleus (DN) is an important pathologic correlate of neurologic disability in patients with Friedreich ataxia (FA). Thinning of the DN was quantified in 29 autopsy cases of FA and 2 carriers by measuring the thickness of the gray matter ribbon on stains with anti-glutamic acid decarboxylase, the rate-limiting enzyme in the biosynthesis of γ-amino-butyric acid (GABA). The DN was thinner than normal in all cases of FA, and atrophy correlated inversely with disease duration but not with age at onset or length of the homozygous guanine-adenine-adenine trinucleotide expansions. In 13 of the FA cases, frozen DN tissue was available for assay of frataxin. Dentate nucleus atrophy was more severe when frataxin was very low. Immunohistochemical staining for glutamic acid decarboxylase revealed grumose reaction and preservation of small GABA-ergic neurons in the DN of FA patients. Residual small DN neurons and varicose axons also contained the glycine transporter 2, identifying them as glycinergic. Immunohistochemistry also confirmed severe loss of GABA-A and glycine receptors in the DN with comparable depletion of the receptor-anchoring protein gephyrin. Thus, loss of gephyrin and failure to position GABA-A and glycine receptors correctly may reduce trophic support of large DN neurons and contribute to their atrophy. By contrast, Purkinje cells may escape retrograde atrophy in FA by issuing new axonal sprouts to small surviving DN neurons where they form reparative grumose clusters.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cerebellar Nuclei / metabolism
  • Cerebellar Nuclei / pathology*
  • Child
  • Female
  • Friedreich Ataxia / pathology*
  • Glutamate Decarboxylase / metabolism
  • Glycine / metabolism*
  • Glycine Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Iron-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Neurons / pathology
  • Receptors, GABA-A / metabolism
  • Receptors, Glycine / metabolism
  • Synapses / metabolism*
  • Synapses / pathology
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*
  • Young Adult
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism*


  • Glycine Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins
  • Iron-Binding Proteins
  • Receptors, GABA-A
  • Receptors, Glycine
  • frataxin
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid
  • Glutamate Decarboxylase
  • Glycine