Increased motor neuron resilience by small molecule compounds that regulate IGF-II expression

Neurobiol Dis. 2018 Feb;110:218-230. doi: 10.1016/j.nbd.2017.11.002. Epub 2017 Nov 4.


The selective vulnerability of motor neurons in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is evident by sparing of a few subpopulations during this fast progressing and debilitating degenerative disease. By studying the gene expression profile of resilient vs. vulnerable motor neuron populations we can gain insight in what biomolecules and pathways may contribute to the resilience and vulnerability. Several genes have been found to be differentially expressed in the vulnerable motor neurons of the cervical spinal cord as compared to the spared motor neurons in CNIII/IV. One gene that is differentially expressed and present at higher levels in less vulnerable motor neurons is insulin-like growth factor II (IGF-II). The motor neuron protective effect of IGF-II has been demonstrated both in vitro and in SOD1 transgenic mice. Here, we have screened a library of small molecule compounds and identified inducers of IGF-II mRNA and protein expression. Several identified compounds significantly protected motor neurons from glutamate excitotoxicity in vitro. One of the compounds, vardenafil, resulted in a complete motor neuron protection, an effect that was reversed by blocking receptors of IGF-II. When administered to naïve rats vardenafil was present in the cerebrospinal fluid and increased IGF-II mRNA expression in the spinal cord. When administered to SOD1 transgenic mice, there was a significant delay in motor symptom onset and prolonged survival. Vardenafil also increased IGF-II mRNA and protein levels in motor neurons derived from healthy subject and ALS patient iPSCs, activated a human IGF-II promoter and improved survival of ALS-patient derived motor neurons in culture. Our findings suggest that modulation of genes differentially expressed in vulnerable and resilient motor neurons may be a useful therapeutic approach for motor neuron disease.

Keywords: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; Insulin-like growth factor II; Motor neuron disease; Motor neurons; Selective vulnerability; Spinal cord; Vardenafil; iPSCs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells / drug effects
  • Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor II / biosynthesis*
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor II / drug effects
  • Mice
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Motor Neurons / drug effects*
  • Motor Neurons / metabolism*
  • Phosphodiesterase 5 Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Vardenafil Dihydrochloride / pharmacology*


  • Phosphodiesterase 5 Inhibitors
  • Vardenafil Dihydrochloride
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor II