Background: Several genetic alterations, including point mutations and copy number variations in NLGN genes, have been associated with psychiatric disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and X-linked mental retardation (XLMR). NLGN genes encode neuroligin (NL) proteins, which are adhesion molecules that are important for proper synaptic formation and maturation. Previously, we and others found that the expression level of murine NL1 is regulated by proteolytic processing in a synaptic activity-dependent manner.
Methods: In this study, we analyzed the effects of missense variants associated with ASD and XLMR on the metabolism and function of NL4X, a protein which is encoded by the NLGN4X gene and is expressed only in humans, using cultured cells, primary neurons from rodents, and human induced pluripotent stem cell-derived neurons.
Results: NL4X was found to undergo proteolytic processing in human neuronal cells. Almost all NL4X variants caused a substantial decrease in the levels of mature NL4X and its synaptogenic activity in a heterologous culture system. Intriguingly, the L593F variant of NL4X accelerated the proteolysis of mature NL4X proteins located on the cell surface. In contrast, other variants decreased the cell-surface trafficking of NL4X. Notably, protease inhibitors as well as chemical chaperones rescued the expression of mature NL4X.
Limitations: Our study did not reveal whether these dysfunctional phenotypes occurred in individuals carrying NLGN4X variant. Moreover, though these pathological mechanisms could be exploited as potential drug targets for ASD, it remains unclear whether these compounds would have beneficial effects on ASD model animals and patients.
Conclusions: These data suggest that reduced amounts of the functional NL4X protein on the cell surface is a common mechanism by which point mutants of the NL4X protein cause psychiatric disorders, although different molecular mechanisms are thought to be involved. Furthermore, these results highlight that the precision medicine approach based on genetic and cell biological analyses is important for the development of therapeutics for psychiatric disorders.
Keywords: Neuroligin 4X; Proteolysis; Synaptogenesis; Trafficking.