Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa have discovered that a molecule triggered by running can help repair certain kinds of brain damage in animal models. They found that this molecule, called VGF nerve growth factor, helps to heal the protective coating that surrounds and insulates nerve fibres. Their study, published in Cell Reports, could pave the way for new treatments for multiple sclerosis and other neurodegenerative disorders that involve damaged nerve insulation.
Looking at their brains, the researchers found that the running mice gained significantly more insulation in their cerebellum compared to their sedentary siblings.
To find out why running was causing this insulation, the team looked for differences in gene expression between the running and sedentary mice and identified VGF as a prime candidate. VGF is one of the hundreds of molecules that muscles and the brain release into the body during exercise. It also has an anti-depressant effect that helps make exercise feel good.
When the research team used a non-replicating virus to introduce the VGF protein into the bloodstream of a sedentary mutant mouse, the effects were similar to having the mouse run – more insulation in the damaged area of the cerebellum, and fewer disease symptoms.
“We saw that the existing neurons became better insulated and more stable,” said Dr. Matías Alvarez-Saavedra, the lead author on the paper. “This means that the unhealthy neurons worked better and the previously damaged circuits in the brain became stronger and more functional.”
Dr. Alvarez-Saavedra obtained his PhD in Dr. Picketts’ research group, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the New York University School of Medicine and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
“We need to do broader research to see whether this molecule can also be helpful in treating multiple sclerosis and other neurodegenerative diseases,” said Dr. Picketts.
- •Running promotes the survival of mice with cerebellar ataxia following Snf2h inactivation
- •Running ataxic mice show enhanced oligodendrogenesis and de novo myelination
- •Comparative RNA-seq studies identify VGF as a contributor to brain repair
- •VGF overexpression improves ataxic phenotype in mice without exercise
Exercise has been argued to enhance cognitive function and slow progressive neurodegenerative disease. Although exercise promotes neurogenesis, oligodendrogenesis and adaptive myelination are also significant contributors to brain repair and brain health. Nonetheless, the molecular details underlying these effects remain poorly understood. Conditional ablation of the Snf2h gene impairs cerebellar development producing mice with poor motor function, progressive ataxia, and death between postnatal days 25–45. Here, we show that voluntary running induced an endogenous brain repair mechanism that resulted in a striking increase in hindbrain myelination and the long-term survival of Snf2h cKO mice. Further experiments identified the VGF growth factor as a major driver underlying this effect. VGF neuropeptides promote oligodendrogenesis in vitro, whereas Snf2h cKO mice treated with full-length VGF-encoding adenoviruses removed the requirement of exercise for survival. Together, these results suggest that VGF delivery could represent a therapeutic strategy for cerebellar ataxia and other pathologies of the CNS.