Autophagy plays a major role in the elimination of cellular waste components, the renewal of intracellular proteins and the prevention of the build-up of redundant or defective material. It is fundamental for the maintenance of homeostasis and especially important in post-mitotic neuronal cells, which, without competent autophagy, accumulate protein aggregates and degenerate. Many neurodegenerative diseases are associated with defective autophagy; however, whether altered protein turnover or accumulation of misfolded, aggregate-prone proteins is the primary insult in neurodegeneration has long been a matter of debate. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a fatal disease characterized by selective degeneration of motor neurons. Most of the ALS cases occur in sporadic forms (SALS), while 10%–15% of the cases have a positive familial history (FALS). The accumulation in the cell of misfolded/abnormal proteins is a hallmark of both SALS and FALS, and altered protein degradation due to autophagy dysregulation has been proposed to contribute to ALS pathogenesis. In this review, we focus on the main molecular features of autophagy to provide a framework for discussion of our recent findings about the role in disease pathogenesis of the ALS-linked form of the VAPB
gene product, a mutant protein that drives the generation of unusual cytoplasmic inclusions.
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