Neuronal death is enhanced and begins during foetal development in type I spinal muscular atrophy spinal cord.
Werdnig-Hoffmann disease (WHD) is the most severe clinical type of spinal muscular atrophy characterized by loss of lower motor neurons and paralysis. We examined the hypothesis that disease pathogenesis is based on an inappropriate persistence of normally occurring motor neuron programmed cell death. The diagnosis of WHD was made on the basis of clinical findings, electromyoneurography, and biopsy, and further confirmed by mutation analysis of the survival motor neuron (SMN) and neuronal apoptosis inhibitory protein (NAIP) genes using PCR. We used ultrastructural analysis as well as TUNEL and ISEL methods to assess DNA fragmentation, and immunocytochemistry to identify expression of the apoptosis-related proteins bcl-2 and p53. A significant number of motor neurons in the spinal cord of children with WHD were shown to die by apoptosis. As revealed by TUNEL, dying neurons in WHD patients comprised 0.2%-6.4% of the neuron numbers counted. This finding contradicts earlier studies that failed to find such evidence and suggests that early blockade of prolonged motor neuron apoptosis may be a potential therapeutic strategy for WHD.