What Is Alpha-synuclein?

Alpha-synuclein is a protein that is abundant in the human brain. Smaller amounts are found in the heart, muscles, and other tissues. In the brain, alpha-synuclein is found mainly at the tips of nerve cells (neurons) in specialized structures called presynaptic terminals.

Within these structures, alpha-synuclein interacts with phospholipids and proteins. Presynaptic terminals release chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, from compartments known as synaptic vesicles. The release of neurotransmitters relays signals between neurons and is critical for normal brain function.

Although the function of alpha-synuclein is not well understood, studies suggest that it plays a role in maintaining a supply of synaptic vesicles in presynaptic terminals by clustering synaptic vesicles. It may also help regulate the release of dopamine, a type of neurotransmitter that is critical for controlling the start and stop of voluntary and involuntary movements.

The human alpha-synuclein protein is made of 140 amino acids and is encoded by the SNCA gene. An alpha-synuclein fragment, known as the non-Abeta component (NAC) of Alzheimer’s disease amyloid, originally found in an amyloid-enriched fraction, was shown to be a fragment of its precursor protein, NACP. It was later determined that NACP was the human homologue of Torpedo synuclein. Therefore, NACP is now referred to as human alpha-synuclein.

Alpha-synuclein Tissue Expression

Alpha-synuclein is a synuclein protein of unknown function primarily found in neural tissue, making up as much as 1% of all proteins in the cytosol of brain cells. It is predominantly expressed in the neocortex, hippocampus, substantia nigra, thalamus, and cerebellum. In melanocytic cells, SNCA protein expression may be regulated by MITF.

It has been established that alpha-synuclein is extensively localized in the nucleus of mammalian brain neurons, suggesting a role of alpha-synuclein in the nucleus.

Synuclein is, however, found predominantly in the presynaptic termini, in both free or membrane-bound forms, with roughly 15% of synuclein being membrane-bound in any moment in neurons.

It has also been shown that alpha-synuclein is localized in neuronal mitochondria. Alpha-synuclein is highly expressed in the mitochondria in olfactory bulb, hippocampus, striatum and thalamus, where the cytosolic alpha-synuclein is also rich. However, the cerebral cortex and cerebellum are two exceptions, which contain rich cytosolic alpha-synuclein but very low levels of mitochondrial alpha-synuclein.

It has been shown that alpha-synuclein is localized in the inner membrane of mitochondria, and that the inhibitory effect of alpha-synuclein on complex I activity of mitochondrial respiratory chain is dose-dependent. Thus, it is suggested that alpha-synuclein in mitochondria is differentially expressed in different brain regions and the background levels of mitochondrial alpha-synuclein may be a potential factor affecting mitochondrial function and predisposing some neurons to degeneration.

At least three isoforms of synuclein are produced through alternative splicing. The majority form of the protein, and the one most investigated, is the full-length protein of 140 amino acids. Other isoforms are alpha-synuclein-126, which lacks residues 41-54 due to loss of exon 3; and alpha-synuclein-112,[19] which lacks residue 103-130 due to loss of exon 5.

Clinical Significance

Classically considered an unstructured soluble protein, unmutated α-synuclein forms a stably folded tetramer that resists aggregation. This observation, though reproduced and extended by several labs, is still a matter of debate in the field due to conflicting reports.

Nevertheless, alpha-synuclein aggregates to form insoluble fibrils in pathological conditions characterized by Lewy bodies, such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia with Lewy bodies and multiple system atrophy. These disorders are known as synucleinopathies. Alpha-synuclein is the primary structural component of Lewy body fibrils.

Occasionally, Lewy bodies contain tau protein; however, alpha-synuclein and tau constitute two distinctive subsets of filaments in the same inclusion bodies. Alpha-synuclein pathology is also found in both sporadic and familial cases with Alzheimer’s disease.

Immunohistochemistry for alpha-synuclein showing positive staining (brown) of an intraneural Lewy-body in the Substantia nigra in Parkinson's disease.

Immunohistochemistry for alpha-synuclein showing positive staining (brown) of an intraneural Lewy-body in the Substantia nigra in Parkinson’s disease.
Credit: Marvin 101 CC BY-SA 3.0

The aggregation mechanism of alpha-synuclein is uncertain. There is evidence of a structured intermediate rich in beta structure that can be the precursor of aggregation and, ultimately, Lewy bodies. A single molecule study in 2008 suggests alpha-synuclein exists as a mix of unstructured, alpha-helix, and beta-sheet-rich conformers in equilibrium. Mutations or buffer conditions known to improve aggregation strongly increase the population of the beta conformer, thus suggesting this could be a conformation related to pathogenic aggregation.

One theory is that the majority of alpha-synuclein aggregates are located in the presynapse as smaller deposits which causes synaptic dysfunction.

Among the strategies for treating synucleinopathies are compounds that inhibit aggregation of alpha-synuclein. It has been shown that the small molecule cuminaldehyde inhibits fibrillation of alpha-synuclein. The Epstein-Barr virus has been implicated in these disorders.

In rare cases of familial forms of Parkinson’s disease, there is a mutation in the gene coding for alpha-synuclein. Five point mutations have been identified thus far: A53T, A30P, E46K, H50Q, and G51D. It has been reported that some mutations influence the initiation and amplification steps of the aggregation process.

Genomic duplication and triplication of the gene appear to be a rare cause of Parkinson’s disease in other lineages, although more common than point mutations. Hence certain mutations of alpha-synuclein may cause it to form amyloid-like fibrils that contribute to Parkinson’s disease.

Certain sections of the alpha-synuclein protein may play a role in the tauopathies.

A prion form of the protein alpha-synuclein may be a causal agent for the disease multiple system atrophy.

Function

Alpha-synuclein is specifically upregulated in a discrete population of presynaptic terminals of the brain during a period of acquisition-related synaptic rearrangement. It has been shown that alpha-synuclein significantly interacts with tubulin, and that alpha-synuclein may have activity as a potential microtubule-associated protein, like tau.

Recent evidence suggests that alpha-synuclein functions as a molecular chaperone in the formation of SNARE complexes. In particular, it simultaneously binds to phospholipids of the plasma membrane via its N-terminus domain and to synaptobrevin-2 via its C-terminus domain, with increased importance during synaptic activity. Indeed, there is growing evidence that alpha-synuclein is involved in the functioning of the neuronal Golgi apparatus and vesicle trafficking.

Apparently, alpha-synuclein is essential for normal development of the cognitive functions. Knock-out mice with the targeted inactivation of the expression of alpha-synuclein show impaired spatial learning and working memory.

Mark Polizzi,‎ Howard C. Kanowitz
Alpha-Synuclein: Functional Mechanisms, Structure and Role in Parkinson’s Disease
Nova Science Pub Inc; 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1629484938