Spinal bulbar muscular atrophy (SBMA) is a progressive, late onset neuromuscular disease causing motor dysfunction in men. While the morphology of the neuromuscular junction (NMJ) is typically affected by neuromuscular disease, whether NMJs in SBMA are similarly affected by disease is not known. Such information will shed light on whether defective NMJs might contribute to the loss of motor function and represent a potential therapeutic target for treating symptoms of SBMA. To address this gap in information, the morphology of NMJs was examined in two mouse models of SBMA, a myogenic model that overexpresses wildtype androgen receptor (AR) exclusively in muscle fibres and a knockin (KI) model expressing a humanized mutant AR gene. The tripartite motor synapse consisting of motor nerve terminal, terminal Schwann cells (tSCs) and postsynaptic specialization were visualized and analysed using confocal microscopy. Counter to expectation, we found no evidence of denervation in either model, but junctions in both models show pathological fragmentation and an abnormal synaptophysin distribution consistent with functionally weak synapses. Neurofilament accumulations were observed only in the myogenic model, even though axonal transport dysfunction is characteristic of both models. The ultrastructure of NMJs revealed additional pathology, including deficits in docked vesicles presynaptically, wider synaptic clefts, and simpler secondary folds postsynaptically. The observed pathology of NMJs in diseased SBMA mice is likely the morphological correlates of defects in synaptic function which may underlie motor impairments associated with SBMA.
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