Volakakis N et al.
α-synuclein, a protein enriched in Lewy bodies and highly implicated in neurotoxicity in Parkinson's disease, is distributed both at nerve terminals and in the cell nucleus. Here we show that a nuclear derivative of α-synuclein induces more pronounced changes at the gene expression level in mouse primary dopamine (DA) neurons compared to a derivative that is excluded from the nucleus. Moreover, by RNA sequencing we analyzed the extent of genome-wide effects on gene expression resulting from expression of human α-synuclein in primary mouse DA neurons. The results implicated the transcription factor Nurr1 as a key dysregulated target of α-synuclein toxicity. Forced Nurr1 expression restored the expression of hundreds of dysregulated genes in primary DA neurons expressing α-synuclein, and therefore prompted us to test the possibility that Nurr1 can be pharmacologically targeted by bexarotene, a ligand for the retinoid X receptor that forms heterodimers with Nurr1. Although our data demonstrated that bexarotene was ineffective in neuroprotection in rats in vivo, the results revealed that bexarotene has the capacity to coregulate subsets of Nurr1 target genes including the receptor tyrosine kinase subunit Ret. Moreover, bexarotene was able to restore dysfunctional Ret-dependent neurotrophic signaling in α-synuclein-overexpressing mouse DA neurons. These data highlight the role of the Nurr1-Ret signaling pathway as a target of α-synuclein toxicity and suggest that retinoid X receptor ligands with appropriate pharmacological properties could have therapeutic potential in Parkinson's disease.