Axon outgrowth and neuronal differentiation defects after a-SMN and FL-SMN silencing in primary hippocampal cultures

Daniela Pletto, Silvia Capra, Adele Finardi, Francesca Colciaghi, Paola Nobili, Giorgio Stefano Battaglia, Denise Locatelli, Cinzia Cagnoli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) is a severe autosomal recessive disease characterized by selective motor neuron degeneration, caused by disruptions of the Survival of Motor Neuron 1 (Smn1) gene. The main product of SMN1 is the full-length SMN protein (FL-SMN), that plays an established role in mRNA splicing. FL-SMN is also involved in neurite outgrowth and axonal transport. A shorter SMN isoform, axonal-SMN or a-SMN, displays a more specific axonal localization and has remarkable axonogenic properties in NSC-34. Introduction of known SMA mutations into the a-SMN transcript leads to impairment of axon growth and morphological defects similar to those observed in SMA patients and animal models. Although there is increasing evidence for the relevance of SMN axonal functions in SMA pathogenesis, the specific contributions of FL-SMN and a-SMN are not known yet. This work aimed to analyze the differential roles of FL-SMN and a-SMN in axon outgrowth and in neuronal homeostasis during differentiation of neurons into a mature phenotype. We employed primary cultures of hippocampal neurons as a well-defined model of polarization and differentiation. By analyzing subcellular localization, we showed that a-SMN is preferentially localized in the growing axonal compartment. By specifically silencing FL-SMN or a-SMN proteins, we demonstrated that both proteins play a role in axon growth, as their selective down-regulation reduces axon length without affecting dendritic arborization. a-SMN silencing, and in minor extent FL-SMN silencing, resulted in the growth of multi-neuritic neurons, impaired in the differentiation process of selecting a single axon out of multiple neurites. In these neurons, neurites often display mixed axonal and dendritic markers and abnormal distribution of the axonal initial segment protein Ankirin G, suggesting loss of neuronal polarity. Our results indicate that a-SMN and FL-SMN are needed for neuronal polarization and organization of axonal and dendritic compartments, processes that are fundamental for neuronal function and survival.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e0199105
JournalPLoS One
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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