Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease of complex etiology leading to motor neuron degeneration. Many gene alterations cause this pathology, including mutation in Cu, Zn superoxide dismutase (SOD1), which leads to its gain of function. Mutant SOD1 proteins are prone to aberrant misfolding and create aggregates that impair autophagy. The hypoxic stress is strictly linked to the disease progression since it induces uncontrolled autophagy activation and the consequent high rates of cell death. Previously, we showed that pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP) exerts neurotrophic activity in cultured mSOD1 motor neurons exposed to serum deprivation. To date, no studies have examined whether the protective effect of PACAP on mSOD1 cells exposed to hypoxic insult is mediated through the regulation of the autophagy process. In the present study, we used the neuroblastoma-spinal cord-34 (NSC-34) cell line, stably expressing human wild type or mutant SOD1 G93A, to represent a well characterized in vitro model of a familial form of ALS. These cells were exposed to 100-µM desferrioxamine mesylate salt for 24h, to mimic the hypoxic stress affecting motor neurons during the disease progression. Our results showed that PACAP treatment significantly reduced cell death and hypoxia-induced mSOD1 accumulation by modulating the autophagy process in G93A motor neurons, as revealed by the decreased LC3II and the increased p62 levels, two autophagy indicators. These results were also confirmed by evaluating the vacuole formation detected through light chain 3 (LC3) immunofluorescence. Furthermore, the PACAP effects on autophagy seem to be mediated through the activation of the MAPK/ERK signaling pathway. Overall, our data demonstrated that PACAP exerts an ameliorative effect on the mSOD1 motor neuron viability by modulating a hypoxia-induced autophagy process through activation of MAPK/ERK signaling cascade.
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