Converging Mechanisms of p53 Activation Drive Motor Neuron Degeneration in Spinal Muscular Atrophy

Cell Rep. 2017 Dec 26;21(13):3767-3780. doi: 10.1016/j.celrep.2017.12.003.


The hallmark of spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), an inherited disease caused by ubiquitous deficiency in the SMN protein, is the selective degeneration of subsets of spinal motor neurons. Here, we show that cell-autonomous activation of p53 occurs in vulnerable but not resistant motor neurons of SMA mice at pre-symptomatic stages. Moreover, pharmacological or genetic inhibition of p53 prevents motor neuron death, demonstrating that induction of p53 signaling drives neurodegeneration. At late disease stages, however, nuclear accumulation of p53 extends to resistant motor neurons and spinal interneurons but is not associated with cell death. Importantly, we identify phosphorylation of serine 18 as a specific post-translational modification of p53 that exclusively marks vulnerable SMA motor neurons and provide evidence that amino-terminal phosphorylation of p53 is required for the neurodegenerative process. Our findings indicate that distinct events induced by SMN deficiency converge on p53 to trigger selective death of vulnerable SMA motor neurons.

Keywords: SMA; SMN; cell death; motor neurons; neurodegenerative disease; p53; phosphorylation; spinal muscular atrophy; survival motor neuron.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Cell Death
  • Female
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Models, Biological
  • Motor Neurons / metabolism*
  • Motor Neurons / pathology*
  • Muscular Atrophy, Spinal / metabolism*
  • Muscular Atrophy, Spinal / pathology*
  • Nerve Degeneration / metabolism*
  • Nerve Degeneration / pathology*
  • Phosphorylation
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53 / metabolism*


  • Biomarkers
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53