Activating ATF6 in spinal muscular atrophy promotes SMN expression and motor neuron survival through the IRE1α-XBP1 pathway

Neuropathol Appl Neurobiol. 2022 Aug;48(5):e12816. doi: 10.1111/nan.12816. Epub 2022 Mar 30.


Aim: Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a neuromuscular disease caused by survival of motor neuron (SMN) deficiency that induces motor neuron (MN) degeneration and severe muscular atrophy. Gene therapies that increase SMN have proven their efficacy but not for all patients. Here, we explored the unfolded protein response (UPR) status in SMA pathology and explored whether UPR modulation could be beneficial for SMA patients.

Methods: We analysed the expression and activation of key UPR proteins by RT-qPCR and by western blots in SMA patient iPSC-derived MNs and one SMA cell line in which SMN expression was re-established (rescue). We complemented this approach by using myoblast and fibroblast SMA patient cells and SMA mouse models of varying severities. Finally, we tested in vitro and in vivo the effect of IRE1α/XBP1 pathway restoration on SMN expression and subsequent neuroprotection.

Results: We report that the IRE1α/XBP1 branch of the unfolded protein response is disrupted in SMA, with a depletion of XBP1s irrespective of IRE1α activation pattern. The overexpression of XBP1s in SMA fibroblasts proved to transcriptionally enhance SMN expression. Importantly, rebalancing XBP1s expression in severe SMA-like mice, induced SMN expression and spinal MN protection.

Conclusions: We have identified XBP1s depletion as a contributing factor in SMA pathogenesis, and the modulation of this transcription factor proves to be a plausible therapeutic avenue in the context of pharmacological interventions for patients.

Keywords: IRE1α; SMN; XBP1; neuroprotection; spinal muscular atrophy; unfolded protein response.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Activating Transcription Factor 6* / genetics
  • Activating Transcription Factor 6* / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Cell Line
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Endoribonucleases* / genetics
  • Endoribonucleases* / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Motor Neurons / pathology
  • Muscular Atrophy, Spinal* / genetics
  • Muscular Atrophy, Spinal* / metabolism
  • Muscular Atrophy, Spinal* / pathology
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases* / genetics
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases* / metabolism
  • Survival of Motor Neuron 1 Protein* / genetics
  • Survival of Motor Neuron 1 Protein* / metabolism
  • X-Box Binding Protein 1* / genetics
  • X-Box Binding Protein 1* / metabolism


  • ATF6 protein, human
  • Activating Transcription Factor 6
  • Survival of Motor Neuron 1 Protein
  • X-Box Binding Protein 1
  • XBP1 protein, human
  • ERN1 protein, human
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • Endoribonucleases