BACKGROUND: Tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) is a rare genetic multisystemic disorder resulting from autosomal dominant mutations in the TSC1 or TSC2 genes. It is characterised by hyperactivation of the mechanistic target of rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1) pathway and has severe neurodevelopmental and neurological components including autism, intellectual disability and epilepsy. In human and rodent models, loss of the TSC proteins causes neuronal hyperexcitability and synaptic dysfunction, although the consequences of these changes for the developing central nervous system are currently unclear.
METHODS: Here we apply multi-electrode array-based assays to study the effects of TSC2 loss on neuronal network activity using autism spectrum disorder (ASD) patient-derived iPSCs. We examine both temporal synchronisation of neuronal bursting and spatial connectivity between electrodes across the network.
RESULTS: We find that ASD patient-derived neurons with a functional loss of TSC2, in addition to possessing neuronal hyperactivity, develop a dysfunctional neuronal network with reduced synchronisation of neuronal bursting and lower spatial connectivity. These deficits of network function are associated with elevated expression of genes for inhibitory GABA signalling and glutamate signalling, indicating a potential abnormality of synaptic inhibitory-excitatory signalling. mTORC1 activity functions within a homeostatic triad of protein kinases, mTOR, AMP-dependent protein Kinase 1 (AMPK) and Unc-51 like Autophagy Activating Kinase 1 (ULK1) that orchestrate the interplay of anabolic cell growth and catabolic autophagy while balancing energy and nutrient homeostasis. The mTOR inhibitor rapamycin suppresses neuronal hyperactivity, but does not increase synchronised network activity, whereas activation of AMPK restores some aspects of network activity. In contrast, the ULK1 activator, LYN-1604, increases the network behaviour, shortens the network burst lengths and reduces the number of uncorrelated spikes.
LIMITATIONS: Although a robust and consistent phenotype is observed across multiple independent iPSC cultures, the results are based on one patient. There may be more subtle differences between patients with different TSC2 mutations or differences of polygenic background within their genomes. This may affect the severity of the network deficit or the pharmacological response between TSC2 patients.
CONCLUSIONS: Our observations suggest that there is a reduction in the network connectivity of the in vitro neuronal network associated with ASD patients with TSC2 mutation, which may arise via an excitatory/inhibitory imbalance due to increased GABA-signalling at inhibitory synapses. This abnormality can be effectively suppressed via activation of ULK1.