Calpain is a Ca2+-activated proteolytic enzyme involved in neurodegeneration in a variety of injuries and diseases of the central nervous system (CNS). Many calpain homologs have been discovered. Depending on the tissue distribution, calpains are broadly classified as ubiquitous and tissue-specific. Ubiquitous calpain isoforms, μ-calpain and m-calpain, are abundantly expressed in the CNS. Calpastatin, an endogenous protein inhibitor, regulates the activity of ubiquitous calpain. Overactivation of calpain may degrade calpastatin, limiting its regulatory efficiency. Molecular structures of calpain and calpastatin have been deduced from cDNA cloning. The precise physiological function of calpain remains elusive. However, experimental evidence strongly suggests an important role for calpain in causing neurodegeneration in various injuries and diseases of the CNS. The increase in intracellular free Ca2+ levels in the course of injuries and diseases in the CNS causes overactivation of calpain, promoting degradation of key cytoskeletal and membrane proteins. Cleavage of these key proteins by calpain is an irreversible process that perturbs the integrity and stability of CNS cells, leading to programmed cell death or apoptosis. Calpain in conjunction with caspases can cause apoptosis of the CNS cells. An aberrant Ca2+ homeostasis inevitably activates calpain, which plays a crucial role in the pathophysiology of the CNS injuries and diseases. Therefore, calpain is a potential therapeutic target to prevent neurodegeneration. To this end, various cell-permeable calpain inhibitors have been synthesized for pharmacological inhibition of calpain activity. Some calpain inhibitors have shown significant neuroprotection in animal models of the CNS injuries and diseases, indicating their therapeutic potential.
Keywords: calpain, calpastatin, mechanism of calpain activation, calpain substrates, calapin inhibitors, cns injuries, cns diseases, calpain-mediated neurodegeneration
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