Degenerative ataxias are a common form of neurodegenerative disease that affect about 20 individuals per 100,000. The autosomal dominant spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs) are caused by a variety of protein coding mutations (single nucleotide changes, deletions and expansions) in single genes. Affected genes encode plasma membrane and intracellular ion channels, membrane receptors, protein kinases, protein phosphatases and proteins of unknown function. Although SCA-linked genes are quite diverse they share two key features: first, they are highly, although not exclusively, expressed in cerebellar Purkinje neurons (PNs), and second, when mutated they lead ultimately to the degeneration of PNs. In this review we summarize ataxia-related changes in PN neurophysiology that have been observed in various mouse knockout lines and in transgenic models of human SCA. We also highlight emerging evidence that altered metabotropic glutamate receptor signalling and disrupted calcium homeostasis in PNs form a common, early pathophysiological mechanism in SCAs. Together these findings indicate that aberrant calcium signalling and profound changes in PN neurophysiology precede PN cell loss and are likely to lead to cerebellar circuit dysfunction that explains behavioural signs of ataxia characteristic of the disease.
© 2016 The Authors. The Journal of Physiology © 2016 The Physiological Society.