Many lines of evidence suggest that the Parkinson's disease (PD)-related protein α-synuclein (α-SYN) can propagate from cell to cell in a prion-like manner. However, the cellular mechanisms behind the spreading remain elusive. Here, we show that human astrocytes derived from embryonic stem cells actively transfer aggregated α-SYN to nearby astrocytes via direct contact and tunneling nanotubes (TNTs). Failure in the astrocytes' lysosomal digestion of excess α-SYN oligomers results in α-SYN deposits in the trans-Golgi network followed by endoplasmic reticulum swelling and mitochondrial disturbances. The stressed astrocytes respond by conspicuously sending out TNTs, enabling intercellular transfer of α-SYN to healthy astrocytes, which in return deliver mitochondria, indicating a TNT-mediated rescue mechanism. Using a pharmacological approach to inhibit TNT formation, we abolished the transfer of both α-SYN and mitochondria. Together, our results highlight the role of astrocytes in α-SYN cell-to-cell transfer, identifying possible pathophysiological events in the PD brain that could be of therapeutic relevance.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Astrocytes are the major cell type in the brain, yet their role in Parkinson's disease progression remains elusive. Here, we show that human astrocytes actively transfer aggregated α-synuclein (α-SYN) to healthy astrocytes via direct contact and tunneling nanotubes (TNTs), rather than degrade it. The astrocytes engulf large amounts of oligomeric α-SYN that are subsequently stored in the trans-Golgi network region. The accumulation of α-SYN in the astrocytes affects their lysosomal machinery and induces mitochondrial damage. The stressed astrocytes respond by sending out TNTs, enabling intercellular transfer of α-SYN to healthy astrocytes. Our findings highlight an unexpected role of astrocytes in the propagation of α-SYN pathology via TNTs, revealing astrocytes as a potential target for therapeutic intervention.
Keywords: alpha-synuclein; astrocytes; lysosomes; mitochondria; trans-Golgi; tunneling nanotubes.
Copyright © 2017 Rostami et al.