The findings of Savonenko et al. (2008) are an impressive addition to the growing evidence supporting a role for neuregulin-1 (NRG1) in schizophrenia pathology. The authors not only revealed a novel relationship between schizophrenia-like behavior and the loss of BACE1 proteolytic function, but also showed that this association results from disruption of BACE1-mediated NRG1 cleavage. These observations support the notion that aberrant processing of NRG1 may contribute to the development of schizophrenia-like phenotypes, providing a basis for examining other NRG1-cleaving pathways in the context of schizophrenia. Savonenko et al. were thorough in their behavioral assessment of the BACE1 mutant mice, convincingly showing that these animals exhibit schizophrenia-related behaviors that could be exacerbated by psychostimulants and improved by antipsychotic drug treatment.
What remains unclear, however, is the relationship between the NRG1/ErbB4 protein findings in the BACE1 mutant mouse brain and those previously reported in the schizophrenic human brain. For example, the authors reported reductions in ErbB4-PSD95 coupling in the BACE1 mutant mouse, whereas Hahn et al. (2006) demonstrated increased ErbB4-PSD95 interaction in the prefrontal cortices of schizophrenic patients. In addition, our recent investigation found elevated prefrontal cortical levels of both NRG1 C-terminal fragment (ICD) and full-length ErbB4 protein in schizophrenic subjects (Chong et al., 2008), while Savonenko et al. showed decreased NRG1 C-terminal fragment levels with no alterations in ErbB4 protein in the BACE1 mutant mouse cortex. On the other hand, the lack of variations in overall cortical ErbB4 in these mice may correspond to the findings of Hahn et al. (2006) who reported no alterations in prefrontal cortical ErbB4 protein levels in schizophrenic subjects.
These seemingly conflicting results could suggest that any imbalance in cortical NRG1 signaling, whether increased or diminished, may lead to schizophrenia. Indeed, studies have suggested that improper tuning of other cortical signaling systems, particularly those of dopamine, can contribute to cognitive deficits associated with this disease (Vijayraghavan et. al, 2007). Optimal synaptic function may display “inverted-U” shaped response to NRG1-ErbB4 activity as proposed by Role and Talmage (2007). Alternatively, the authors speculated that some of the discrepancies between the findings in the BACE1 mutant mice and those observed in the schizophrenic humans may be due to differences in the duration of NRG1 signaling modification between the animals and the patients, who had a lifetime of mental illness. One way to examine the validity of this suggestion is to look at cortical ErbB4-PSD95 coupling and NRG1/ErbB4 protein levels in the BACE1 mutant mice at different developmental and adult time points. This approach could test whether these animals at later stages in life display alterations in cortical ErbB4-PSD95 interactions and/or in NRG1/ErbB4 protein levels comparable to those seen in schizophrenic subjects of the human studies, which primarily consisted of adults beyond middle age. Also of interest would be to create NRG1 and ErbB4 gain-of-function mutants where the timing of over-expression could be controlled.
Given the significance of NRG1 signaling/cleavage in the BACE1 mutant mouse schizophrenia-like phenotypes, it may also be important to consider pathways leading to changes in ErbB4 C-terminal fragment levels in schizophrenia etiology. A recent paper by Walsh et al. (2008) demonstrated that at least one schizophrenic patient in their study has a gene deletion encompassing the C-terminal intracellular kinase domain of ErbB4, and we have found decreases in ErbB4 C-terminal fragments relative to full-length ErbB4 in the frontal cortex of schizophrenic subjects (Chong et al., 2008). These observations together with those of Savonenko et al. raise interesting questions regarding how molecular alterations in NRG1 signaling and cleavage may impact ErbB4 signaling and cleavage and whether changes in NRG1 and/or ErbB4 could be primary or secondary to the schizophrenia disease process.
In summary, Savonenko et al. have provided a novel avenue to probe NRG1 function and processing in relation to schizophrenia pathology. They have also introduced BACE1 as a potentially important schizophrenia susceptibility molecule that to our knowledge has not been directly investigated in subjects with schizophrenia and may be worth studying in the brain tissues of these patients. In addition, it would be interesting to examine how the schizophrenia-related traits of the BACE1 mutant mice compare with those of other NRG1 mutant mice such as the heterozygous NRG1 transmembrane knock-out mice (Stefansson et al., 2002). Such an investigation could provide insight into whether similar NRG1 signaling deficiencies underlie the schizophrenia-like phenotypes of these animal models.
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