Molecular changes associated with spinal cord aging

Geroscience. 2020 Apr;42(2):765-784. doi: 10.1007/s11357-020-00172-6. Epub 2020 Mar 6.


Age-related muscle weakness and loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia) is a universal problem in the elderly. Our previous studies indicate that alpha motor neurons (α-MNs) play a critical role in this process. The goal of the current study is to uncover changes in the aging spinal cord that contribute to loss of innervation and the downstream degenerative processes that occur in skeletal muscle. The number of α-MNs is decreased in the spinal cord of wildtype mice during aging, beginning in middle age and reaching a 41% loss by 27 months of age. There is evidence for age-related loss of myelin and mild inflammation, including astrocyte and microglia activation and an increase in levels of sICAM-1. We identified changes in metabolites consistent with compromised neuronal viability, such as reduced levels of N-acetyl-aspartate. Cleaved caspase-3 is more abundant in spinal cord from old mice, suggesting that apoptosis contributes to neuronal loss. RNA-seq analysis revealed changes in the expression of a number of genes in spinal cord from old mice, in particular genes encoding extracellular matrix components (ECM) and a 172-fold increase in MMP-12 expression. Furthermore, blood-spinal cord barrier (BSCB) permeability is increased in old mice, which may contribute to alterations in spinal cord homeostasis and exacerbate neuronal distress. Together, these data show for the first time that the spinal cord undergoes significant changes during aging, including progressive α-MNs loss that is associated with low-grade inflammation, apoptosis, changes in ECM, myelination, and vascular permeability.

Keywords: Age-related neuronal loss; Aging; MMPs; Motor neurons; Spinal cord.

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

  • Aging
  • Animals
  • Astrocytes
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Motor Neurons*
  • Spinal Cord* / physiopathology