The neurotrophins are a family of closely related proteins that were first identified as survival factors for sympathetic and sensory neurons, and have since been shown to control a number of aspects of survival, development and function of neurons in both the central and peripheral nervous systems. Limiting quantities of neurotrophins during development control the numbers of surviving neurons to ensure a match between neurons and the requirement for a suitable density of target innervation. Biological effects of each of the four mammalian neurotrophins are mediated through activation of one or more of the three members of the tropomyosin-related kinase (Trk) family of receptor tyrosine kinases (TrkA, TrkB and TrkC). In addition, all neurotrophins activate the p75 neurotrophin receptor (p75NTR), a member of the tumour necrosis factor receptor superfamily. Nerve growth factor (NGF), the best characterised member of the neurotrophin family, sends its survival signals through activation of TrkA and can induce death by binding to p75NTR. Neurotrophin engagement of Trk receptors leads to activation of Ras, phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase, phospholipase C-γ1 and signalling pathways controlled through these proteins, including the mitogen-activated protein kinases. Neurotrophin availability is required into adulthood, where they control synaptic function and plasticity, and sustain neuronal cell survival, morphology and differentiation. Preclinical studies point to the therapeutic potential of neurotrophic factors in preventing or slowing the progression of neurodegenerative conditions. Given the difficulties inherent with a protein therapeutic approach to treating central nervous system disorders, increasing attention has turned to the development of alternative strategies and, in particular, small molecule mimetics. This article will provide an overview of neurotrophin biology, their receptors, and signalling pathways, followed by a description of functional mimetics of neurotrophins acting at Trk receptors. Moreover, exciting recent data describing G-protein-coupled receptor transactivation of Trk receptors and their downstream signalling pathways raise the possibility of using small molecules to elicit neuroprotective effects.
Keywords: Neurotrophins, Trk receptor, p75 neurotrophin receptor, glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal signal transduction, kinases, phosphorylation, nerve growth factor mimetics, TrkA mimetics, neuroregeneration
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