Multiple system atrophy (MSA) is a rapidly progressive neurodegenerative disease arising from the misfolding and accumulation of the protein α-synuclein in oligodendrocytes, where it forms glial cytoplasmic inclusions (GCIs). Several years of studying synthetic α-synuclein fibrils has provided critical insight into the ability of α-synuclein to template endogenous protein misfolding, giving rise to fibrillar structures capable of propagating from cell to cell. However, more recent studies with MSA-derived α-synuclein aggregates have shown that they have a similar ability to undergo template-directed propagation, like PrP prions. Almost 20 years after α-synuclein was discovered as the primary component of GCIs, α-synuclein aggregates isolated from MSA patient samples were shown to infect cultured mammalian cells and also to transmit neurological disease to transgenic mice. These findings argue that α-synuclein becomes a prion in MSA patients. In this review, we discuss the in vitro and in vivo data supporting the recent classification of MSA as a prion disease.
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