Subcellular organization of UBE3A in human cerebral cortex

Mol Autism. 2018 Oct 19:9:54. doi: 10.1186/s13229-018-0238-0. eCollection 2018.


Background: Loss of UBE3A causes Angelman syndrome, whereas excess UBE3A activity appears to increase the risk for autism. Despite this powerful association with neurodevelopmental disorders, there is still much to be learned about UBE3A, including its cellular and subcellular organization in the human brain. The issue is important, since UBE3A's localization is integral to its function.

Methods: We used light and electron microscopic immunohistochemistry to study the cellular and subcellular distribution of UBE3A in the adult human cerebral cortex. Experiments were performed on multiple tissue sources, but our results focused on optimally preserved material, using surgically resected human temporal cortex of high ultrastructural quality from nine individuals.

Results: We demonstrate that UBE3A is expressed in both glutamatergic and GABAergic neurons, and to a lesser extent in glial cells. We find that UBE3A in neurons has a non-uniform subcellular distribution. In somata, UBE3A preferentially concentrates in euchromatin-rich domains within the nucleus. Electron microscopy reveals that labeling concentrates in the head and neck of dendritic spines and is excluded from the PSD. Strongest labeling within the neuropil was found in axon terminals.

Conclusions: By highlighting the subcellular compartments in which UBE3A is likely to function in the human neocortex, our data provide insight into the diverse functional capacities of this E3 ligase. These anatomical data may help to elucidate the role of UBE3A in Angelman syndrome and autism spectrum disorder.

Keywords: Angelman syndrome; Axon terminal; E6-AP; Euchromatin; Mitochondria.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Angelman Syndrome / metabolism
  • Cerebral Cortex / metabolism*
  • Cerebral Cortex / ultrastructure
  • Epilepsy / metabolism
  • Female
  • Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Middle Aged
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Neurons / ultrastructure
  • Ubiquitin-Protein Ligases / metabolism*
  • Ubiquitin-Protein Ligases / ultrastructure
  • Young Adult
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism


  • GFAP protein, human
  • Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid
  • UBE3A protein, human
  • Ubiquitin-Protein Ligases