In several neurodegenerative diseases and myelin disorders, the degeneration profiles of myelinated axons are compatible with underlying energy deficits. However, it is presently impossible to measure selectively axonal ATP levels in the electrically active nervous system. We combined transgenic expression of an ATP-sensor in neurons of mice with confocal FRET imaging and electrophysiological recordings of acutely isolated optic nerves. This allowed us to monitor dynamic changes and activity-dependent axonal ATP homeostasis at the cellular level and in real time. We find that changes in ATP levels correlate well with compound action potentials. However, this correlation is disrupted when metabolism of lactate is inhibited, suggesting that axonal glycolysis products are not sufficient to maintain mitochondrial energy metabolism of electrically active axons. The combined monitoring of cellular ATP and electrical activity is a novel tool to study neuronal and glial energy metabolism in normal physiology and in models of neurodegenerative disorders.The brain contains an intricate network of nerve cells that receive, process, send and store information. This information travels as electrical impulses along a long, thin part of each nerve cell known as the nerve fiber or axon. The act of sending these electrical signals requires a lot of energy, and energy in cells is most often stored within molecules of adenosine triphosphate (called ATP for short).Importantly, a better understanding of how the production and consumption of ATP in nerve cells relates to electrical activity would help scientists to better understand how a shortage of energy in the brain contributes to diseases like multiple sclerosis. However, to date, it has been challenging to study the dynamics of ATP in nerve cells that are active.Now, Trevisiol et al. describe a new system that allows changes in ATP levels to be seen within active nerve cells. First, mice were genetically engineered to produce a molecule that works like an ATP sensor only in their nerve cells. This made it possible to visualize the amount of ATP inside the axons in real-time using a microscope. Measuring ATP levels and recording the electrical signals moving along an axon at the same time allowed Trevisiol et al. to see how ATP content and electrical activity correlate and regulate each other.The experiments reveal that strong electrical activity reduces the ATP content of the axon. Trevisiol et al. also discovered that nerve cells are unable to generate enough energy on their own to sustain their electrical activity. These results provide evidence that other cells in the brain – most likely non-nerve cells called oligodendrocytes – play an active role in delivering energy-rich substances to the axons of nerve cells.In the future, the same tools and approaches could be used to monitor ATP levels and electrical activity in mice that model neurological disorders. Such experiments could tell scientists more about how disturbing energy production in nerve cells affects these diseases.
Trevisiol, A., Saab, A. S., Winkler, U., Marx, G., Imamura, H., Möbius, W., … Hirrlinger, J. (2017). Monitoring ATP dynamics in electrically active white matter tracts. ELife, 6. https://doi.org/10.7554/elife.24241