A pinboard by
Marco Morsch

Postdoctoral Fellow, Macquarie University


Zebrafish could hold the key to better-understanding of Motor Neuron Disease (MND/ALS).

Accumulation of proteins into insoluble aggregates in neurons and glia is now recognized as a common pathological hallmark of many neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. in Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease). In Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the intracellular accumulation of proteins in neurons is also well established. The clinical data describes a focal onset and the subsequent spread of muscle paralysis to other regions over time (Ravits et al., 2007;Ravits and La Spada, 2009;Kanouchi et al., 2012). In line with these clinical observations, cell-culture studies show the secretion of ALS-proteins from neurons (Grad et al., 2014, Feiler 2016), and that aggregates isolated from patient tissue are internalized by neurons and can propagate further protein aggregation (Nonaka et al., 2013). Taken together, the evidence for a spread of these aggregates is beginning to emerge and is entirely limited to studies using cultured nerve cells (in-vitro studies).

For many years, non-neuronal cells (glia) were considered as static, structural components of the brain and spinal cord, whose main purpose was to provide metabolic and substrate support for neurons. Now it is recognised that glia represent a dynamic component of the nervous system, actively provide a range of essential functions (Hanisch and Kettenmann, 2007; Kettenmann et al., 2011; Morsch et al., 2015). Through this process, it is believed that microglia actively maintain homeostatic balance within the brain and spinal cord and abnormalities in microglial clearance are linked to worsened outcomes in neurodegenerative diseases (Block et al., 2007).

Our project investigates the nature of interactions between neurons and microglia that lead to motor neuron degeneration and potentially ALS. We have established a unique in-vivo platform to evaluate aggregate distribution and neurodegeneration throughout the nervous system in the zebrafish spinal cord. We can visualise the subcellular localisation of these ALS aggregates following the onset of degeneration as well as its redistribution during that process. Importantly, we now have uncovered that microglial clearance plays an important role early on during neurodegeneration.

The longer-term clinical significance of this would be the possible identification of therapeutic strategies that could delay progression of the disease. While not a “cure”, it could potentially preserve lifestyle of patients in the early, less debilitating stages of the disease.


Intravital correlated microscopy reveals differential macrophage and microglial dynamics during resolution of neuroinflammation.

Abstract: Many brain diseases involve activation of resident and peripheral immune cells to clear damaged and dying neurons. Which immune cells respond in what way to cues related to brain disease, however, remains poorly understood. To elucidate these in vivo immunological events in response to brain cell death we used genetically targeted cell ablation in zebrafish. Using intravital microscopy and large-scale electron microscopy, we defined the kinetics and nature of immune responses immediately following injury. Initially, clearance of dead cells occurs by mononuclear phagocytes, including resident microglia and macrophages of peripheral origin, whereas amoeboid microglia are exclusively involved at a later stage. Granulocytes, on the other hand, do not migrate towards the injury. Remarkably, following clearance, phagocyte numbers decrease, partly by phagocyte cell death and subsequent engulfment of phagocyte corpses by microglia. Here, we identify differential temporal involvement of microglia and peripheral macrophages in clearance of dead cells in the brain, revealing the chronological sequence of events in neuroinflammatory resolution. Remarkably, recruited phagocytes undergo cell death and are engulfed by microglia. Because adult zebrafish treated at the larval stage lack signs of pathology, it is likely that this mode of resolving immune responses in brain contributes to full tissue recovery. Therefore, these findings suggest that control of such immune cell behavior could benefit recovery from neuronal damage.

Pub.: 29 Jun '14, Pinned: 18 Nov '17

miR‐124 Contributes to the functional maturity of microglia

Abstract: During early development of the central nervous system (CNS), a subset of yolk‐sac derived myeloid cells populate the brain and provide the seed for the microglial cell population, which will self‐renew throughout life. As development progresses, individual microglial cells transition from a phagocytic amoeboid state through a transitional morphing phase into the sessile, ramified, and normally nonphagocytic microglia observed in the adult CNS under healthy conditions. The molecular drivers of this tissue‐specific maturation profile are not known. However, a survey of tissue resident macrophages identified miR‐124 to be expressed in microglia. In this study, we used transgenic zebrafish to overexpress miR‐124 in the mpeg1 expressing yolk‐sac‐derived myeloid cells that seed the microglia. In addition, a systemic sponge designed to neutralize the effects of miR‐124 was used to assess microglial development in a miR‐124 loss‐of‐function environment. Following the induction of miR‐124 overexpression, microglial motility and phagocytosis of apoptotic cells were significantly reduced. miR‐124 overexpression in microglia resulted in the accumulation of residual apoptotic cell bodies in the optic tectum, which could not be achieved by miR‐124 overexpression in differentiated neurons. Conversely, expression of the miR‐124 sponge caused an increase in the motility of microglia and transiently rescued motility and phagocytosis functions when activated simultaneously with miR‐124 overexpression. This study provides in vivo evidence that miR‐124 activity has a key role in the development of functionally mature microglia. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Develop Neurobiol, 2015

Pub.: 25 Jul '15, Pinned: 18 Nov '17

TDP-43 activates microglia through NF-κB and NLRP3 inflammasome.

Abstract: Transactive response DNA-binding protein-43 (TDP-43) is a multifunctional nucleic acid binding protein present in ubiquitinated inclusions in tissues of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and fronto-temporal lobar degeneration (FTLD). The ALS-associated mutations in the glycine-rich C-terminal domain of TDP-43 established a causal link between TDP-43 and disease, and conferred both loss- and gain-of-function properties in neurons. Since it has not been established whether these intra-neuronal changes are sufficient to cause ALS or whether non-cell autonomous neuronal-glial signaling could be involved, we investigated the extracellular effects of TDP-43 proteins on microglial activation and motoneuron toxicity. Wild-type, truncated 25kD C-terminal fragments, or mutant forms of TDP-43 all activated microglia and upregulated NOX2, TNF-α, and IL-1β, with WT forms being significantly less effective in activating microglia. This response to TDP-43 was mediated by its interaction with the microglial surface CD14 receptor and subsequent stimulation of the NF-κB and AP-1 pathways, as well as the intracellular inflammasome. At the cell surface, CD14 blocking antibodies suppressed microglial NF-κB activation and proinflammatory cytokine production mediated by TDP-43. Intracellularly, the NLRP3 inflammasome was induced and functional caspase-1 was produced augmenting the release of mature IL-1β. Further, TDP-43-mediated activation of microglia caused a proinflammatory cascade that was toxic to motoneurons. In the absence of microglia, TDP-43 was not toxic to motoneurons. The ability of TDP-43 to promote CD14-mediated activation of microglial NF-κB and AP-1 pathways, as well as the NLRP3 inflammasome, suggests the involvement of a non-cell autonomous proinflammatory signaling that enhances motoneuron injury, and may offer novel therapeutic targets in ALS.

Pub.: 30 Jul '15, Pinned: 17 Nov '17

Development of ramified microglia from early macrophages in the zebrafish optic tectum.

Abstract: Microglia, the resident macrophage precursors of the brain, are necessary for the maintenance of tissue homeostasis and activated by a wide range of pathological stimuli. They have a key role in immune and inflammatory responses. Early microglia stem from primitive macrophages, however the transition from early motile forms to the ramified mature resident microglia has not been assayed in real time. In order to provide such an assay, we used zebrafish transgenic lines in which fluorescent reporter expression is driven by the promoter of macrophage expressed gene 1 (mpeg1; Ellet et al. [2011]: Blood 117(4): e49-e56,). This enabled the investigation of the development of these cells in live, intact larvae. We show that microglia develop from highly motile amoeboid cells that are engaged in phagocytosis of apoptotic cell bodies into a microglial cell type that rapidly morphs back and forth between amoeboid and ramified morphologies. These morphing microglia eventually settle into a typical mature ramified morphology. Developing microglia frequently come into contact with blood capillaries in the brain, and also frequently contact each other. Up to 10 days postfertilization, microglia were observed to undergo symmetric division. In the adult optic tectum, the microglia are highly branched, resembling mammalian microglia. In addition, the mpeg1 transgene also labeled highly branched cells in the skin overlying the optic tectum from 8-9 days postfertilization, which likely represent Langerhans cells. Thus, the development of zebrafish microglia and their cellular interactions was studied in the intact developing brain in real time and at cellular resolution.

Pub.: 01 Jun '12, Pinned: 26 Sep '17

Investigating microglia-brain tumor cell interactions in vivo in the larval zebrafish brain

Abstract: Publication date: Available online 31 October 2016 Source:Methods in Cell Biology Author(s): K.R. Astell, D. Sieger Glioblastoma is the most frequent and aggressive primary malignant brain tumor. Gliomas exhibit high genetic diversity in addition to complex and variable clinical features. Glioblastoma tumors are highly resistant to multimodal therapies and there is significant patient mortality within the first two years after prognosis. At present clinical treatments are palliative, not curative. Glioblastomas contain a high number of microglia and infiltrating macrophages, which are positively correlated with glioma grade and invasiveness. Microglia are the resident macrophages of the central nervous system. These cells constantly scan the brain and react promptly to any abnormality, removing detrimental factors and safeguarding the central nervous system against further damage. Microglia and macrophages that have colonized the glioblastoma display protumoral functions and promote tumor growth. The optically transparent zebrafish larva facilitates imaging of fluorescently labeled cells at high spatial and temporal resolution in vivo. It is therefore an excellent model to investigate microglia-glioma cell interactions at the early stages of tumor development. Here we provide several methods that can be used to study the early stages of microglia-glioma cell interactions in the zebrafish. We present a technique for the xenotransplantation of mammalian oncogenic cells into the zebrafish brain and provide advice for image capture and analysis.

Pub.: 07 Nov '16, Pinned: 26 Sep '17

TDP-43 or FUS-induced misfolded human wild-type SOD1 can propagate intercellularly in a prion-like fashion.

Abstract: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which appears to spread through the neuroaxis in a spatiotemporally restricted manner, is linked to heritable mutations in genes encoding SOD1, TDP-43, FUS, C9ORF72, or can occur sporadically without recognized genetic mutations. Misfolded human wild-type (HuWt) SOD1 has been detected in both familial and sporadic ALS patients, despite mutations in SOD1 accounting for only 2% of total cases. We previously showed that accumulation of pathological TDP-43 or FUS coexist with misfolded HuWtSOD1 in patient motor neurons, and can trigger its misfolding in cultured cells. Here, we used immunocytochemistry and immunoprecipitation to demonstrate that TDP-43 or FUS-induced misfolded HuWtSOD1 can propagate from cell-to-cell via conditioned media, and seed cytotoxic misfolding of endogenous HuWtSOD1 in the recipient cells in a prion-like fashion. Knockdown of SOD1 using siRNA in recipient cells, or incubation of conditioned media with misfolded SOD1-specific antibodies, inhibits intercellular transmission, indicating that HuWtSOD1 is an obligate seed and substrate of propagated misfolding. In this system, intercellular spread of SOD1 misfolding is not accompanied by transmission of TDP-43 or FUS pathology. Our findings argue that pathological TDP-43 and FUS may exert motor neuron pathology in ALS through the initiation of propagated misfolding of SOD1.

Pub.: 02 Mar '16, Pinned: 28 Aug '17

Spread of pathology in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: assessment of phosphorylated TDP-43 along axonal pathways.

Abstract: The progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) through the brain has recently been staged using independent neuropathological and neuroimaging modalities. The two schemes tie into the concept of pathological spread through corticofugal axonal transmission that stems from observation of oligodendrocyte pTDP-43 aggregates along with neuronal inclusions. Here, we aimed to assess evidence of transmission along axonal pathways by looking for pTDP-43 oligodendrocyte pathology in involved white matter tracts, and to present a first validation of the neuropathological staging scheme. pTDP-43 immunohistochemistry was performed in select white matter tracts and grey matter regions from the staging scheme in postmortem-confirmed ALS cases (N = 34). Double-labelling immunofluorescence was performed to confirm co-localisation of pTDP-43 immunoreactivity to oligodendrocytes.While pTDP-43 immunoreactive oligodendrocytes were frequent in the white matter under the motor and sensory cortices, similar assessment of the white matter along the corticospinal tract and in the corpus callosum and cingulum bundle of the same cases revealed no pTDP-43 pathology, questioning the involvement of oligodendrocytes in pathological propagation. The assessment of Betz cell loss revealed that the lack of deep white matter pTDP-43 oligodendrocyte pathology was not due to an absence of motor axons. Assessment of the propagation of pathology to different grey matter regions validated that all cases could be allocated to one of four neuropathological stages, although Stage 4 cases were found to differ significantly in age of onset (~10 years older) and disease duration (shorter duration than Stage 3 and similar to Stage 2).Four stages of ALS neuropathology can be consistently identified, although evidence of sequential clinical progression requires further assessment. As limited pTDP-43 oligodendrocyte pathology in deep corticospinal and other white matter tracts from the motor cortex was observed, the propagation of pathology between neurons may not involve oligodendrocytes and the interpretation of the changes observed on neuroimaging should be modified accordingly.

Pub.: 29 Jul '15, Pinned: 24 Aug '17

Prion-like propagation as a pathogenic principle in frontotemporal dementia.

Abstract: Frontotemporal dementia is a devastating neurodegenerative disease causing stark alterations in personality and language. Characterized by severe atrophy of the frontal and temporal brain lobes, frontotemporal dementia (FTD) shows extreme heterogeneity in clinical presentation, genetic causes, and pathological findings. Like most neurodegenerative diseases, the initial symptoms of FTD are subtle, but increase in severity over time, as the disease progresses. Clinical progression is paralleled by exacerbation of pathological findings and the involvement of broader brain regions, which currently lack mechanistic explanation. Yet, a flurry of studies indicate that protein aggregates accumulating in neurodegenerative diseases can act as propagating entities, amplifying their pathogenic conformation, in a way similar to infectious prions. In this prion-centric view, FTD can be divided into three subtypes, TDP-43 or FUS proteinopathy and tauopathy. Here, we review the current evidence that FTD-linked pathology propagates in a prion-like manner and discuss the implications of these findings for disease progression and heterogeneity. Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease causing severe personality dysfunctions, characterized by profound heterogeneity. Accumulation of tau, TDP-43 or FUS cytoplasmic aggregates characterize molecularly distinct and non-overlapping FTD subtypes. Here, we discuss the current evidence suggesting that prion-like propagation and cell-to-cell spread of each of these cytoplasmic aggregates may underlie disease progression and heterogeneity. This article is part of the Frontotemporal Dementia special issue.

Pub.: 10 Aug '16, Pinned: 24 Aug '17

In vitro prion-like behaviour of TDP-43 in ALS.

Abstract: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is the most common form of motor neuron disease (MND), and >95% of familial and sporadic cases involve the deposition of insoluble aggregated, phosphorylated and cleaved TDP-43 protein. Accumulating clinical and biological evidence now indicates that ALS bears a number of similarities to the prion diseases, with TDP-43 acting as a misfolded 'prion-like' protein demonstrating similar underlying pathobiology. Here we systematically address the hypothesis that ALS is a prion-like disorder. First we demonstrate that TDP-43 demonstrates seeded polymerisation in vitro directly from both ALS brain and spinal cord. We next show that the seeding of TDP-43 results in the formation of characteristic insoluble, aggregated, and phosphorylated TDP-43 pathology that directly recapitulates the morphological diversity of TDP-43 inclusions detected in ALS patient CNS tissue. We next demonstrate that this reaction can be serially propagated to produce increasing amounts of phosphorylated TDP-43 pathology, and that aggregates can spread from cell to cell in an analogous fashion to that seen in the prion diseases. Finally, we reproduced our findings in a murine motor neuron-like cell line (NSC-34), where the seeding of TDP-43 induces the formation of TDP-43 oligomers and reduced cell viability. These findings may guide therapeutic strategies in this rapidly progressive and invariably fatal disease.

Pub.: 04 Sep '16, Pinned: 24 Aug '17

Therapeutic reduction of ataxin-2 extends lifespan and reduces pathology in TDP-43 mice.

Abstract: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a rapidly progressing neurodegenerative disease that is characterized by motor neuron loss and that leads to paralysis and death 2-5 years after disease onset. Nearly all patients with ALS have aggregates of the RNA-binding protein TDP-43 in their brains and spinal cords, and rare mutations in the gene encoding TDP-43 can cause ALS. There are no effective TDP-43-directed therapies for ALS or related TDP-43 proteinopathies, such as frontotemporal dementia. Antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs) and RNA-interference approaches are emerging as attractive therapeutic strategies in neurological diseases. Indeed, treatment of a rat model of inherited ALS (caused by a mutation in Sod1) with ASOs against Sod1 has been shown to substantially slow disease progression. However, as SOD1 mutations account for only around 2-5% of ALS cases, additional therapeutic strategies are needed. Silencing TDP-43 itself is probably not appropriate, given its critical cellular functions. Here we present a promising alternative therapeutic strategy for ALS that involves targeting ataxin-2. A decrease in ataxin-2 suppresses TDP-43 toxicity in yeast and flies, and intermediate-length polyglutamine expansions in the ataxin-2 gene increase risk of ALS. We used two independent approaches to test whether decreasing ataxin-2 levels could mitigate disease in a mouse model of TDP-43 proteinopathy. First, we crossed ataxin-2 knockout mice with TDP-43 (also known as TARDBP) transgenic mice. The decrease in ataxin-2 reduced aggregation of TDP-43, markedly increased survival and improved motor function. Second, in a more therapeutically applicable approach, we administered ASOs targeting ataxin-2 to the central nervous system of TDP-43 transgenic mice. This single treatment markedly extended survival. Because TDP-43 aggregation is a component of nearly all cases of ALS, targeting ataxin-2 could represent a broadly effective therapeutic strategy.

Pub.: 14 Apr '17, Pinned: 24 Aug '17

Triggering Cell Stress and Death Using Conventional UV Laser Confocal Microscopy.

Abstract: Using a standard confocal setup, a UV ablation method can be utilized to selectively induce cellular injury and to visualize single-cell responses and cell-cell interactions in the CNS in real-time. Previously, studying these cell-specific responses after injury often required complicated setups or the transfer of cells or animals into different, non-physiological environments, confounding immediate and short-term analysis. For example, drug-mediated ablation approaches often lack the specificity that is required to study single-cell responses and immediate cell-cell interactions. Similarly, while high-power pulsed laser ablation approaches provide very good control and tissue penetration, they require specialized equipment that can complicate real-time visualization of cellular responses. The refined UV laser ablation approach described here allows researchers to stress or kill an individual cell in a dose- and time-dependent manner using a conventional confocal microscope equipped with a 405-nm laser. The method was applied to selectively ablate a single neuron within a dense network of surrounding cells in the zebrafish spinal cord. This approach revealed a dose-dependent response of the ablated neurons, causing the fragmentation of cellular bodies and anterograde degeneration along the axon within minutes to hours. This method allows researchers to study the fate of an individual dying cell and, importantly, the instant response of cells-such as microglia and astrocytes-surrounding the ablation site.

Pub.: 13 Feb '17, Pinned: 24 Aug '17