Neuroscience study identifies new trigger mechanism for fragile X syndrome in mice

Loss of astroglia-specific fragile X mental retardation protein contributes to fragile X syndrome

BOSTON (July 5, 2016)—A study published today in the Journal of Neuroscience led by Yongjie Yang of Tufts University School of Medicine identifies an astroglial trigger mechanism as contributing to symptoms of fragile X syndrome in mice.

Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is a genetic disorder that arises from mutations in a gene on the X chromosome. It is the most common cause of inherited intellectual disability in humans and is associated with autism spectrum disorder. Previous research had associated the loss of a single protein, fragile X mental retardation protein (FMRP), as the predominant cause of FXS.

Astroglia, a class of nervous system support cell, are abundant in the brain and help regulate neuronal signaling. They are implicated in several neurological disorders, including FXS, but little is known about how they become dysfunctional and contribute to disease.

Using genetically engineered mice, Yang and his colleagues selectively prevented astroglia from producing FMRP. They observed that the animals developed symptoms similar to those seen in FXS. The researchers identified an astrocyte-specific glutamate transporter (GLT1), which when disrupted led to an imbalance of glutamate signaling, as a casual mechanism contributing to FXS symptoms. By restoring FMRP and glutamate signaling to astrocytes, the Yang lab saw a reversal of several FXS-like symptoms.


Yongjie Yang, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscienceYongjie Yang, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience

“The involvement of vast number of glial cells, especially astroglial cells, is not well documented in neurodevelopmental disorders, such as fragile x syndrome and autism. Our study, which used selective genetic manipulation of fragile X mental retardation gene in astroglial cells, found that one of the key functions of astroglial cells is impaired, which contributes to synaptic deficits. These results suggest a previously undescribed astroglia-mediated pathogenic mechanism in FXS, which may shed light on some types of autism. Indeed, we are currently investigating the alterations of glutamate transporter functions in other autism mouse models,” said senior author Yongjie Yang, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Tufts University School of Medicine. He is also a member of the cell, molecular & developmental biology, and neuroscience program faculties at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts.

“The findings are exciting to me as a neuroscience researcher because they further our understanding of how FXS develops and might respond to a treatment,” said first author Haruki Higashimori, Ph.D., research assistant professor in Yang’s lab at Tufts University School of Medicine. “By deepening our understanding of astroglia, we may also gain insight into how our brains evolve and what role mutations play in that developmental process.” 

Yang’s lab at Tufts University School of Medicine is focused on learning how glia – astrocytes in particular – develop and what causes these cells to sometimes become dysfunctional, causing conditions like FXS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and autism.

Additional authors of this paper are Temitope A. Shoneye, a Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) scholar in Yang’s lab; David L. Nelson, Ph.D., Department of Molecular and Human Genetics, Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute, Baylor College of Medicine; Christina S. Schin, a graduate of the M.B.S. program at Tufts; Ming Sum R. Chiang, a research technician in Yang’s Lab and Lydie Morel, formerly a research fellow in Yang Lab’s, all of the Tufts University School of Medicine Department of Neuroscience.  

This research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health under award numbers R01MH099554 and R01MH106490 (both to Yang), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development under award number U54HD083092 (to Nelson), both of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Additional funding was provided by a joint postdoctoral fellowship from the Autism Science Foundation and the FRAXA Research Foundation. The Post-Baccalaureate Research Program (PREP) at the Sackler School is funded by award R25GM066567 from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) and by the Sackler School.

Higashimori H., Schin C.S., Chiang M.S.R., Morel L., Shoneye T.A., Nelson D.L., and Yang Y. Selective Deletion of Astroglial FMRP Dysregulates Glutamate Transporter GLT1 and Contributes to Fragile X Syndrome Phenotypes In Vivo. Journal of Neuroscience July 6, 2016 (ePub ahead of print; DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1069-16.2016)

About Tufts University School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences

Tufts University School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University are international leaders in medical and population health education and advanced research. Tufts University School of Medicine emphasizes rigorous fundamentals in a dynamic learning environment to educate physicians, scientists, and public health professionals to become leaders in their fields. The School of Medicine and the Sackler School are renowned for excellence in education in general medicine, the biomedical sciences, and public health, as well as for innovative research at the cellular, molecular, and population health level. Ranked among the top in the nation, the School of Medicine is affiliated with six major teaching hospitals and more than 30 health care facilities. Tufts University School of Medicine and the Sackler School undertake research that is consistently rated among the highest in the nation for its effect on the advancement of medical and prevention science.


A note regarding the above references to the Sackler School: In December 2019, Tufts University announced that it would remove the Sackler name from all programs and facilities—including the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. At that time, the school was renamed the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

Back to Top