Spinocerebellar ataxia type 3 (SCA3) is an autosomal dominant neurodegenerative disorder caused by expansion of a polyglutamine (polyQ)-encoding CAG repeat in the ATXN3 gene. Because the ATXN3 protein regulates photoreceptor ciliogenesis and phagocytosis, we aimed to explore whether expanded polyQ ATXN3 impacts retinal function and integrity in SCA3 patients and transgenic mice. We evaluated the retinal structure and function in five patients with SCA3 and in a transgenic mouse model of this disease (YACMJD84.2, Q84) using optical coherence tomography (OCT) and electroretinogram (ERG). In the transgenic mice, we further: a) determined the retinal expression pattern of ATXN3 and the distribution of cones and rods using immunofluorescence (IF); and b) assessed the retinal ultrastructure using transmission electron microscopy (TEM). Some patients with SCA3 in our cohort revealed: i) reduced central macular thickness indirectly correlated with disease duration; ii) decreased thickness of the macula and the ganglion cell layer, and reduced macula volume inversely correlated with disease severity (SARA score); and iii) electrophysiological dysfunction of cones, rods, and inner retinal cells. Transgenic mice replicated the human OCT and ERG findings with aged homozygous Q84/Q84 mice showing a stronger phenotype accompanied by further thinning of the outer nuclear layer and photoreceptor layer and highly reduced cone and rod activities, thus supporting severe retinal dysfunction in these mice. In addition, Q84 mice showed progressive accumulation of ATXN3-positive aggregates throughout several retinal layers and depletion of cones alongside the disease course. TEM analysis of aged Q84/Q84 mouse retinas supported the ATXN3 aggregation findings by revealing the presence of high number of negative electron dense puncta in ganglion cells, inner plexiform and inner nuclear layers, and showed further thinning of the outer plexiform layer, thickening of the retinal pigment epithelium and elongation of apical microvilli. Our results indicate that retinal alterations detected by non-invasive eye examination using OCT and ERG could represent a biological marker of disease progression and severity in patients with SCA3.
Keywords: Ataxin-3; Biomarker; Deubiquitinating enzyme; Electroretinogram; Machado-Joseph disease; Optical coherence tomography; Photoreceptor; Retinal pigment epithelium; Transmission electron microscopy; polyglutamine.
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