Loss of MeCP2 Function Across Several Neuronal Populations Impairs Breathing Response to Acute Hypoxia

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Rett Syndrome (RTT) is a neurodevelopmental disorder caused by loss of function of the transcriptional regulator Methyl-CpG-Binding Protein 2 (MeCP2). In addition to the characteristic loss of hand function and spoken language after the first year of life, people with RTT also have a variety of physiological and autonomic abnormalities including disrupted breathing rhythms characterized by bouts of hyperventilation and an increased frequency of apnea. These breathing abnormalities, that likely involve alterations in both the circuitry underlying respiratory pace making and those underlying breathing response to environmental stimuli, may underlie the sudden unexpected death seen in a significant fraction of people with RTT. In fact, mice lacking MeCP2 function exhibit abnormal breathing rate response to acute hypoxia and maintain a persistently elevated breathing rate rather than showing typical hypoxic ventilatory decline that can be observed among their wild-type littermates. Using genetic and pharmacological tools to better understand the course of this abnormal hypoxic breathing rate response and the neurons driving it, we learned that the abnormal hypoxic breathing response is acquired as the animals mature, and that MeCP2 function is required within excitatory, inhibitory, and modulatory populations for a normal hypoxic breathing rate response. Furthermore, mice lacking MeCP2 exhibit decreased hypoxia-induced neuronal activity within the nucleus tractus solitarius of the dorsal medulla. Overall, these data provide insight into the neurons driving the circuit dysfunction that leads to breathing abnormalities upon loss of MeCP2. The discovery that combined dysfunction across multiple neuronal populations contributes to breathing dysfunction may provide insight into sudden unexpected death in RTT.

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