Regeneration of Functional Neurons After Spinal Cord Injury via in situ NeuroD1-Mediated Astrocyte-to-Neuron Conversion

Front Cell Dev Biol. 2020 Dec 16:8:591883. doi: 10.3389/fcell.2020.591883. eCollection 2020.


Spinal cord injury (SCI) often leads to impaired motor and sensory functions, partially because the injury-induced neuronal loss cannot be easily replenished through endogenous mechanisms. In vivo neuronal reprogramming has emerged as a novel technology to regenerate neurons from endogenous glial cells by forced expression of neurogenic transcription factors. We have previously demonstrated successful astrocyte-to-neuron conversion in mouse brains with injury or Alzheimer's disease by overexpressing a single neural transcription factor NeuroD1. Here we demonstrate regeneration of spinal cord neurons from reactive astrocytes after SCI through AAV NeuroD1-based gene therapy. We find that NeuroD1 converts reactive astrocytes into neurons in the dorsal horn of stab-injured spinal cord with high efficiency (~95%). Interestingly, NeuroD1-converted neurons in the dorsal horn mostly acquire glutamatergic neuronal subtype, expressing spinal cord-specific markers such as Tlx3 but not brain-specific markers such as Tbr1, suggesting that the astrocytic lineage and local microenvironment affect the cell fate after conversion. Electrophysiological recordings show that the NeuroD1-converted neurons can functionally mature and integrate into local spinal cord circuitry by displaying repetitive action potentials and spontaneous synaptic responses. We further show that NeuroD1-mediated neuronal conversion can occur in the contusive SCI model with a long delay after injury, allowing future studies to further evaluate this in vivo reprogramming technology for functional recovery after SCI. In conclusion, this study may suggest a paradigm shift from classical axonal regeneration to neuronal regeneration for spinal cord repair, using in vivo astrocyte-to-neuron conversion technology to regenerate functional new neurons in the gray matter.

Keywords: NeuroD1; astrocyte; in vivo reprogramming; neuronal conversion; spinal cord.