Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a common and often fatal neuromuscular disorder caused by low levels of the Survival Motor Neuron (SMN) protein. Amongst the earliest detectable consequences of SMN deficiency are profound defects of the neuromuscular junctions (NMJs). In model mice these synapses appear disorganized, fail to mature and are characterized by poorly arborized nerve terminals. Given one role of the SMN protein in orchestrating the assembly of spliceosomal snRNP particles and subsequently regulating the alternative splicing of pre-mRNAs, a plausible link between SMN function and the distal neuromuscular SMA phenotype is an incorrectly spliced transcript or transcripts involved in establishing or maintaining NMJ structure. In this study, we explore the effects of one such transcript-Z+Agrin-known to be a critical organizer of the NMJ. We confirm that low SMN protein reduces motor neuronal levels of Z+Agrin. Repletion of this isoform of Agrin in the motor neurons of SMA model mice increases muscle fiber size, enhances the post-synaptic NMJ area, reduces the abnormal accumulation of intermediate filaments in nerve terminals of the neuromuscular synapse and improves the innervation of muscles. While these effects are independent of changes in SMN levels or increases in motor neuron numbers they nevertheless have a significant effect on the overall disease phenotype, enhancing mean survival in severely affected SMA model mice by ∼40%. We conclude that Agrin is an important target of the SMN protein and that mitigating NMJ defects may be one strategy in treating human spinal muscular atrophy.
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