Background. Proneurotrophins and mature neurotrophins elicit opposite effects via the p75 neurotrophin receptor (p75NTR) and Trk tyrosine kinase receptors, respectively; however the molecular roles of proneurotrophins in the CNS are not fully understood. Results. Based on two rare single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) of the human brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene, we generated R125M-, R127L- and R125M/R127L-BDNF, which have amino acid substitution(s) near the cleavage site between the pro- and mature-domain of BDNF. Western blot analyses demonstrated that these BDNF variants are poorly cleaved and result in the predominant secretion of proBDNF. Using these cleavage-resistant proBDNF (CR-proBDNF) variants, the molecular and cellular roles of proBDNF on the CNS neurons were examined. First, CR-proBDNF showed normal intracellular distribution and secretion in cultured hippocampal neurons, suggesting that inhibition of proBDNF cleavage does not affect intracellular transportation and secretion of BDNF. Second, we purified recombinant CR-proBDNF and tested its biological effects using cultured CNS neurons. Treatment with CR-proBDNF elicited apoptosis of cultured cerebellar granule neurons (CGNs), while treatment with mature BDNF (matBDNF) promoted cell survival. Third, we examined the effects of CR-proBDNF on neuronal morphology using more than 2-week cultures of basal forebrain cholinergic neurons (BFCNs) and hippocampal neurons. Interestingly, in marked contrast to the action of matBDNF, which increased the number of cholinergic fibers and hippocampal dendritic spines, CR-proBDNF dramatically reduced the number of cholinergic fibers and hippocampal dendritic spines, without affecting the survival of these neurons. Conclusion. These results suggest that proBDNF has distinct functions in different populations of CNS neurons and might be responsible for specific physiological cellular processes in the brain.
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