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Single-cell RNA-seq analysis of the brainstem of mutant SOD1 mice reveals perturbed cell types and pathways of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis


Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a neurodegenerative disease in which motor neurons throughout the brain and spinal cord progressively degenerate resulting in muscle atrophy, paralysis and death. Recent studies using animal models of ALS implicate multiple cell-types (e.g., astrocytes and microglia) in ALS pathogenesis in the spinal motor systems. To ascertain cellular vulnerability and cell-type specific mechanisms of ALS in the brainstem that orchestrates oral-motor functions, we conducted parallel single cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) analysis using the high-throughput Drop-seq method. We isolated 1894 and 3199 cells from the brainstem of wildtype and mutant SOD1 symptomatic mice respectively, at postnatal day 100. We recovered major known cell types and neuronal subpopulations, such as interneurons and motor neurons, and trigeminal ganglion (TG) peripheral sensory neurons, as well as, previously uncharacterized interneuron subtypes. We found that the majority of the cell types displayed transcriptomic alterations in ALS mice. Differentially expressed genes (DEGs) of individual cell populations revealed cell-type specific alterations in numerous pathways, including previously known ALS pathways such as inflammation (in microglia), stress response (ependymal and an uncharacterized cell population), neurogenesis (astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, neurons), synapse organization and transmission (microglia, oligodendrocyte precursor cells, and neuronal subtypes), and mitochondrial function (uncharacterized cell populations). Other cell-type specific processes altered in SOD1 mutant brainstem include those from motor neurons (axon regeneration, voltage-gated sodium and potassium channels underlying excitability, potassium ion transport), trigeminal sensory neurons (detection of temperature stimulus involved in sensory perception), and cellular response to toxic substances (uncharacterized cell populations). DEGs consistently altered across cell types (e.g., Malat1), as well as cell-type specific DEGs, were identified. Importantly, DEGs from various cell types overlapped with known ALS genes from the literature and with top hits from an existing human ALS genome-wide association study (GWAS), implicating the potential cell types in which the ALS genes function with ALS pathogenesis. Our molecular investigation at single cell resolution provides comprehensive insights into the cell types, genes and pathways altered in the brainstem in a widely used ALS mouse model.

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