Autophagy is a complex process that controls the transport of cytoplasmic components into lysosomes for degradation. This highly conserved proteolytic system involves dynamic and complex processes, using similar molecular elements and machinery from yeast to humans. Moreover, autophagic dysfunction may contribute to a broad spectrum of mammalian diseases. Indeed, in adult tissues, where the capacity for regeneration or cell division is low or absent (e.g., in the mammalian brain), the accumulation of proteins/peptides that would otherwise be recycled or destroyed may have pathological implications. Indeed, such changes are hallmarks of pathologies, like Alzheimer’s, Prion or Parkinson’s disease, known as proteinopathies. However, it is still unclear whether such dysfunction is a cause or an effect in these conditions. One advantage when analysing autophagy in the mammalian brain is that almost all the markers described in different cell lineages and systems appear to be present in the brain, and even in neurons. By contrast, the mixture of cell types present in the brain and the differentiation stage of such neurons, when compared with neurons in culture, make translating basic research to the clinic less straightforward. Thus, the purpose of this review is to describe and discuss the methods available to monitor autophagy in neurons and in the mammalian brain, a process that is not yet fully understood, focusing primarily on mammalian macroautophagy. We will describe some general features of neuronal autophagy that point to our focus on neuropathologies in which macroautophagy may be altered. Indeed, we centre this review around the hypothesis that enhanced autophagy may be able to provide therapeutic benefits in some brain pathologies, like Alzheimer’s disease, considering this pathology as one of the most prevalent proteinopathies.
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