Cellular genes that are mutated in neurodegenerative diseases code for proteins that are expressed throughout neural development. Genetic analysis suggests that these genes are essential for a broad range of normal neurodevelopmental processes. The proteins they code for interact with numerous other cellular proteins that are components of signaling pathways involved in patterning of the neural tube and in regional specification of neuronal subtypes. Further, pathogenetic mutations of these genes can cause progressive, sublethal alterations in the cellular homeostasis of evolving regional neuronal subpopulations, culminating in late-onset cell death. Therefore, as a consequence of the disease mutations, targeted cell populations may retain molecular traces of abnormal interactions with disease-associated proteins by exhibiting changes in a spectrum of normal cellular functions and enhanced vulnerability to a host of environmental stressors. These observations suggest that the normal functions of these disease-associated proteins are to ensure the fidelity and integration of developmental events associated with the progressive elaboration of neuronal subtypes as well as the maintenance of mature neuronal populations during adult life. The ability to identify alterations within vulnerable neuronal precursors present in pre-symptomatic individuals prior to the onset of irrevocable cellular injury may help foster the development of effective therapeutic interventions using evolving pharmacologic, gene and stem cell technologies. Copyright (C) 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd.
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