Neurochemical Research

, Volume 34, Issue 9, pp 1523–1534 | Cite as

Are Astrocytes the Missing Link Between Lack of Brain Aspartoacylase Activity and the Spongiform Leukodystrophy in Canavan Disease?



Canavan disease (CD) is a genetic degenerative brain disorder associated with mutations of the gene encoding aspartoacylase (ASPA). In humans, the CD syndrome is marked by early onset, hydrocephalus, macroencephaly, psychomotor retardation, and spongiform myelin sheath vacuolization with progressive leukodystrophy. Metabolic hallmarks of the disease include elevated N-acetylaspartate (NAA) levels in brain, plasma and CSF, along with daily excretion of large amounts of NAA and its anabolic metabolite, N-acetylaspartylglutamate (NAAG). Of the observed neuropathies, the most important appears to be the extensive demyelination that interferes with normal neuronal signaling. However, finding the links between the lacks of ASPA activity in oligodendrocytes, the buildup of NAA in white matter (WM) and the mechanisms underlying the edematous spongiform leukodystrophy have remained elusive. In this analytical review we consider what those links might be and propose that in CD, the pathological buildup of NAA in limited WM extracellular fluid (ECF) is responsible for increased ECF osmotic–hydrostatic pressure and initiation of the demyelination process. We also hypothesize that NAA is not directly liberated by neurons in WM as it is in gray matter, and that its source in WM ECF is solely as a product of the catabolism of axon-released NAAG at nodes of Ranvier by astrocyte NAAG peptidase after it has docked with the astrocyte surface metabotropic glutamate receptor 3. This hypothesis ascribes for the first time a possible key role played by astrocytes in CD, linking the lack of ASPA activity in myelinating oligodendrocytes, the pathological buildup of NAA in WM ECF, and the spongiform demyelination process. It also offers new perspectives on the cause of the leukodystrophy in CD, and on possible treatment strategies for this inherited metabolic disease.


Canavan disease N-Acetylaspartate N-Acetylaspartylglutamate Metabotropic glutamate receptor 3 Aspartoacylase NAAG peptidase 

Abbreviations Used




Aquaporin 4








Canavan disease


Central nervous system


Cerebrospinal fluid


Extracellular fluid


Extracellular space


Functional magnetic resonance spectroscopy






Gray matter


Metabotropic Glu receptor 3


Investigative new drugs


Monovalent metal cation


Molecular water pump






Osmotic demyelination syndrome




White matter


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for NeurochemistryNathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric ResearchOrangeburgUSA
  2. 2.Center for Advanced Brain ImagingNathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric ResearchOrangeburgUSA

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