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It has been suggested that some fraction of sarcopenia, an age-related loss of muscle mass and strength leading to frailty, is caused by dysfunction of neuromuscular junctions, the points of integration between muscle and nervous system. This is as opposed to the more straightforward loss of stem cell function, leading to a lesser capacity for muscle growth and tissue maintenance. Acetylcholine has a prominent role in the function of neuromuscular junctions, and on this basis researchers here demonstrate that reduced levels of acetylcholine lead to both improvement in the structure of neuromuscular junctions and a slowing of the progression of sarcopenia in aged mice.
In addition to driving contraction of skeletal muscles, acetylcholine (ACh) acts as an anti-synaptogenic agent at neuromuscular junctions (NMJs). Previous studies suggest that aging is accompanied by increases in cholinergic activity at the NMJ, which may play a role in neuromuscular degeneration. In this study, we hypothesized that moderately and chronically reducing ACh could attenuate the deleterious effects of aging on NMJs and skeletal muscles. To test this hypothesis, we analyzed NMJs and muscle fibers from heterozygous transgenic mice with reduced expression of the vesicular ACh transporter (VAChT), VKDHet mice, which present with approximately 30% less synaptic ACh compared to control mice.
Because ACh is constitutively decreased in VKDHet, we first analyzed developing NMJs and muscle fibers. We found no obvious morphological or molecular differences between NMJs and muscle fibers of VKDHet and control mice during development. In contrast, we found that moderately reducing ACh has various effects on adult NMJs and muscle fibers. VKDHet mice have significantly larger NMJs and muscle fibers compared to age-matched control mice. They also present with reduced expression of the pro-atrophy gene, Foxo1, and have more satellite cells in skeletal muscles. These molecular and cellular features may partially explain the increased size of NMJs and muscle fibers. Thus, moderately reducing ACh may be a therapeutic strategy to prevent the loss of skeletal muscle mass that occurs with advancing age.