Background: Although neuronal extracellular sensing is emerging as crucial for brain wiring and therefore plasticity, little is known about these processes in neurodevelopmental disorders. Ubiquitin protein ligase E3A (UBE3A) plays a key role in neurodevelopment. Lack of UBE3A leads to Angelman syndrome (AS), while its increase is among the most prevalent genetic causes of autism (e.g., Dup15q syndrome). By using microstructured substrates that can induce specific directional stimuli in cells, we previously found deficient topographical contact guidance in AS neurons, which was linked to a dysregulated activation of the focal adhesion pathway. Methods: Here, we study axon and dendrite contact guidance and neuronal morphological features of wild-type, AS, and UBE3A-overexpressing neurons (Dup15q autism model) on micrograting substrates, with the aim to clarify the role of UBE3A in neuronal guidance. Results: We found that loss of axonal contact guidance is specific for AS neurons while UBE3A overexpression does not affect neuronal directional polarization along microgratings. Deficits at the level of axonal branching, growth cone orientation and actin fiber content, focal adhesion (FA) effectors, and actin fiber-binding proteins were observed in AS neurons. We tested different rescue strategies for restoring correct topographical guidance in AS neurons on microgratings, by either UBE3A protein re-expression or by pharmacological treatments acting on cytoskeleton contractility. Nocodazole, a drug that depolymerizes microtubules and increases cell contractility, rescued AS axonal alignment to the gratings by partially restoring focal adhesion pathway activation. Surprisingly, UBE3A re-expression only resulted in partial rescue of the phenotype. Conclusions: We identified a specific in vitro deficit in axonal topographical guidance due selectively to the loss of UBE3A, and we further demonstrate that this defective guidance can be rescued to a certain extent by pharmacological or genetic treatment strategies. Overall, cytoskeleton dynamics emerge as important partners in UBE3A-mediated contact guidance responses. These results support the view that UBE3A-related deficits in early neuronal morphogenesis may lead to defective neuronal connectivity and plasticity.

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Molecular Autism
Erasmus MC: University Medical Center Rotterdam

Tonazzini, I., van Woerden, G., Masciullo, C. (Cecilia), Mientjes, E., Elgersma, Y., & Cecchini, V. (2019). The role of ubiquitin ligase E3A in polarized contact guidance and rescue strategies in UBE3A-deficient hippocampal neurons. Molecular Autism, 10(1). doi:10.1186/s13229-019-0293-1