Alterations in neurotransmitter receptors are a pathological hallmark of the neurodegeneration seen in Huntington's disease (HD). However, the significance of these alterations has been uncertain, possibly reflecting simply the loss of brain cells. It is not known for certain whether the alteration of neurotransmitter receptors occurs before the onset of symptoms in human HD. Recently we developed transgenic mice that contain a portion of a human HD gene and develop a progressive abnormal neurological phenotype. Neurotransmitter receptors that are altered in HD (receptors for glutamate, dopamine, acetylcholine and adenosine) are decreased in the brain transgenic mice, in some cases before the onset of behavioural or motor symptoms. In transgenic mice, neurotransmitter receptor alterations occur before neuronal death. Further, receptor alterations are selective in that certain receptors, namely N-methyl-D-aspartate and gamma-aminobutyric acid receptors, are unaltered. Finally, receptor decreases are preceded by selective decreases in the corresponding mRNA species, suggesting the altered transcription of specific genes. These results suggest that (i) receptor decreases precede, and therefore might contribute to, the development of clinical symptoms, and (ii) altered transcription of specific genes might be a key pathological mechanism in HD.
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