Neuromuscular dysfunction is common in old age. Damaged cytoplasmic structures aggregate with aging, especially in post-mitotic cells like motor neurons. Autophagy is a ubiquitous cell process that aids in the clearance of damaged aggregates. Accordingly, we hypothesized that autophagy is impaired in old age, contributing to neuromuscular dysfunction via an effect in motor neurons. Autophagy flux may be impaired as a result of deficits in the initiation, elongation or degradation phases. Changes in the expression levels of core proteins necessary for each of the autophagy phases were evaluated by Western blotting in the cervical spinal cord (segments C2-C6 corresponding to the phrenic motor pool) of adult male and female mice at 6-, 18-, and 24-months of age (reflecting 100%, 90% and 75% survival, respectively). There was no evidence of an effect of age on the expression of the autophagy markers Beclin-1 (Becn-1; initiation), ATG7 and ATG5/12 complex (elongation) or LC3 (elongation/degradation). Reduced p62 expression (a marker of degradation) was evident in the cervical spinal cord of adult mice at 18-months compared to 24-months. Accordingly, expression of LC3 and p62 in motor neurons was analyzed using immunofluorescence and confocal microscopy in separate animals. LC3 and p62 immunoreactivity was evident in the gray matter with minimal expression in the white matter across all age groups. A mixed linear model with animal as a random effect was used to compare relative LC3 and p62 expression in motor neurons to gray matter across age groups. Expression of both LC3 and p62 was higher in choline acetyl transferase (ChAT)-positive motor neurons (~2-3 fold vs. gray matter). Across age groups, there were differences in the relative expression of LC3 (F = 7.59, p < 0.01) and p62 (F = 8.00, p < 0.01) in cervical motor neurons. LC3 expression in motor neurons increased ~20% by 24-months of age in both male and female mice. p62 expression in motor neurons increased ~70% by 18-months compared to 6-months with no further changes by 24-months of age in male mice. p62 expression did not change across age groups in female mice, and was ~20% higher than in males. Our findings highlight important changes in autophagy pathways that likely contribute to the development of aging-related neuromuscular dysfunction in mice. At 18-months of age, increased autophagosome clearance (reduced p62 expression) appears to be a global effect not restricted to motor neurons. By 24-months of age, increased expression of LC3 and p62 indicates impaired autophagy with autophagosome accumulation in cervical motor neurons.
Copyright © 2018. Published by Elsevier Inc.