Schwann Cells Contribute to Neuromuscular Junction Aging

A range of evidence points to degeneration of neuromuscular junctions as an important contribution to the characteristic loss of muscle mass and strength that takes place with age, leading to sarcopenia. Neuromuscular junctions are the structurally complex link between muscle fibers and the nervous system. While the fine details are not well understood at this time, it seems plausible that some downstream effect of neuromuscular junction activity is necessary for tissue maintenance in muscles to function correctly. When neuromuscular junctions suffer dysfunction due to the underlying molecular damage of aging, muscles suffer as well.

Age-induced degeneration of the neuromuscular junction (NMJ) is associated with motor dysfunction and muscle atrophy. While the impact of aging on the NMJ presynapse and postsynapse is well-documented, little is known about the changes perisynaptic Schwann cells (PSCs), the synaptic glia of the NMJ, undergo during aging. Here, we examined PSCs in young, middle-aged, and old mice in three muscles with different susceptibility to aging. Using light microscopy and electron microscopy, we found that PSCs acquire age-associated cellular features either prior to or at the same time as the onset of NMJ degeneration. Notably, we found that aged PSCs fail to completely cap the NMJ even though they are more abundant in old compared with young mice. We also found that aging PSCs form processes that either intrude into the synaptic cleft or guide axonal sprouts to innervate other NMJs.

We next profiled the transcriptome of PSCs and other Schwann cells (SCs) to identify mechanisms altered in aged PSCs. This analysis revealed that aged PSCs acquire a transcriptional pattern previously shown to promote phagocytosis that is absent in other SCs. It also showed that aged PSCs upregulate unique pro-inflammatory molecules compared to other aged SCs. Interestingly, neither synaptogenesis genes nor genes that are typically upregulated by repair SCs were induced in aged PSCs or other SCs. These findings provide insights into cellular and molecular mechanisms that could be targeted in PSCs to stave off the deleterious effects of aging on NMJs.


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