Current trends in SHANK3 research

David reaching for food
David likes to munch on pieces of cereal bar and watch music videos.

David, like most people with Phelan-McDermid syndrome (PMS), is missing one of his two SHANK3 genes. One copy of SHANK3 is gone, the other copy is intact. Some people with PMS have both copies fully intact (often called interstitial deletions) and some people have small or large disruptions of SHANK3 without affecting other genes (often called variants or mutations). For the vast majority of people with PMS, loss of SHANK3 contributes to the problems of PMS. Fixing SHANK3 has been a priority in the PMS world, although fixing SHANK3 won’t necessarily fix PMS (see Which PMS genes are most important?). I am an advocate for studying (and fixing) the other critical genes of PMS (see Looking for opportunities and Why don’t we have better drugs for 22q13 deletion syndrome?). Too much focus on SHANK3 has been an impediment to progress. Regardless, this blog is about SHANK3 research.

Science is slow

The autism world is hot on SHANK3, so research on this gene has moved forward relatively quickly. That sounds like good news, and it is, as long as we recognize that “quickly” is measured in decades. Research on SHANK3 started when my son, David, was 12 years-old. He is now 32. Over the past 20 years there have been many papers heralding the “rescue” of autism-behaviors in SHANK3 mice. Parents need to understand that “rescue” is mouse research jargon for “our genetically modified mouse is different from normal mice, and the drug we tested made them a little more like normal mice”. It does not mean “a treatment is almost here”.

The reality of research progress is less rosy than the headlines. Most research studies are done these days on rodents. A mouse with a modified SHANK3 gene is nothing like a human with PMS. Most mouse models are SHANK3 mutations, not deletions. Most people with PMS have deletions (see Gene deletion versus mutation: sometimes missing a gene is better), and human deletions affect other critical genes (see How do I know which genes are missing? and Which PMS genes are most important?). Most “SHANK3 mice” have mutations in both copies of the gene. Mutation of just one copy often results in no detectable effect. Contrast that with humans, where it is unlikely that humans can even survive without at least one working copy of SHANK3. Further, although this should be obvious, only rodent researchers talk about “autism-like behavior” in rodents. It is a rather strange concept. Measuring autism in PMS patients is difficult and sometimes controversial. There is no measure of autism in rodents, just tests to see if a mouse prefers exploring another mouse over an inanimate object. Why a mouse might do that is anyone’s guess. Certainly, you won’t have much luck asking the mouse.

It is not simply bad luck that multiple drug rescues have been reported in mice without the development of any PMS or even autism drugs that work on the core symptoms in people. The reality is that not enough is understood about the relationship among genes, drugs and behaviors. To date, there are no PMS-specific drugs currently available for testing on people. If you get invited into a drug study, that drug was invented for some other purpose. Most often, it was a drug that failed its original purpose and researchers or drug companies are looking for a different disease group to test it on.

Despite the limitations of mouse research for testing drugs, mouse research does help us learn about the proteins used in the brain and what category of drugs might someday be useful for treatment.

SHANK3 regulation

Twenty years of looking at SHANK3 has laid important groundwork. More recent studies have benefited from these earlier studies and from development of new research tools. Researchers are beginning to address the complexity of SHANK3 regulation. SHANK3, like most genes, is simply a recipe for making its protein, shank3 (note lower case spelling, no italics). The recipe is copied onto a template called mRNA, and then many copies of shank3 are manufactured using the mRNA template. The shank3 protein is then delivered to the synapses that need more. Like any manufactured commodity, you need to manage the supply to meet the demand. The manufacture takes place at the factory of the cell (soma) and shank3 is used in 10,000 to 100,000 or more synaptic sites elsewhere in the cell. Thus, there is an ordering and distribution network throughout the cell. Orders for more shank3 come from thousands of different sites. SHANK3 regulation is the complex process of making sure the right amount of shank3 is available at each synapse at any given time.

Synapses are the communications connection between neurons. Each synapse has a different strength of connection, and together, turn the protoplasm of the brain into an amazing computer-like machine. The machine is constantly adjusting itself to perform the tasks we call learning, memory, skill acquisition, and decision-making. Like a muscle, when a synapse is used more, it tends to get stronger and larger. That is how the computer adjusts itself. The increase and decrease of shank3 is important for these adjustments. Thus, processes like learning and memory rely on having the right amount of shank3 at the synapse. Regulation of shank3 production, distribution and utilization starts with the amount of synaptic activity at each of thousands of synapses. Complex processes connect synaptic activity with every step of shank3 production and distribution.

New research on SHANK3 regulation

There are two new papers on SHANK3 regulation that represent the next steps in understanding how the cell manages the amount of shank3 protein at each synapse. One paper forces us to rethink about what a shank3 deficiency really means.

Campbell and Sheng just published a paper on DUB enzymes and the regulation of shank3 at the synapse (USP8 Deubiquitinates SHANK3 to Control Synapse Density and SHANK3 Activity-dependent Protein Levels). DUB enzymes prevent the destruction of a protein. Normally, shank3 is destroyed after use by the USP system. These authors have identified an enzyme “USP8”. When the synapse gets very active, USP8 finds shank3 (and shank1) molecules already tagged for destruction by the USP system, and untags them. It is part of the cell’s natural system to retain extra shank3 in anticipation of needing to build up the synapse for future increases in activity. The authors point out that drugs might someday be found to mimic USP8 and help increase the amount of shank3 at the synapse of those people who have insufficient shank3 production.

In the other recent study, work by Yan and her colleagues has teased-apart some of the communications between the synapse and the nucleus used to regulate shank3 production (Social deficits in Shank3-deficient mouse models of autism are rescued by histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibition). They show that too little shank3 at the synapse can trigger movement of β-catenin to the nucleus. The surprising part is that when β-catenin reaches the nucleus, it triggers a series of genetic effects that lead to unusual mouse social behavior. The unusual behaviors can be turned on and off independently of shank3. Thus, the strange social behaviors of these mice are not caused by shank3 levels directly. Rather, the reduced shank3 simply releases β-catenin. It is a case of synapse regulation system gone awry. These results suggest that shank3 is not the most important protein for poor social behavior. Rather, the reduced level of shank3 triggers a series of events that improperly regulate other brain genes. Curiously, this agrees with another recent study of proteins in humans with autism (see Which PMS genes are most associated with Autism?).

This is the end of the blog except for a few final thoughts, below. For those who wish to dig a little deeper into the science, I have provided additional background material on genes, proteins and regulation called “A primer on the lifespan of a protein“.

A primer on the lifespan of a protein

This is a primer about the lifespan of proteins. Shank3 is a protein (note lower case spelling for the protein). Like nearly all proteins, it is born, gets called-upon to work, does its job, then is dissolved and discarded. The most important point is, the amount of shank3 in the cell is highly regulated. At any given moment, there are complicated processes deciding how much is needed and where it is needed. Usually, some parts of a cell may be building up shank3 supplies and incorporating them into synapses, while other parts of the cell are breaking down shank scaffolding (structures built from shank molecules). I sometimes think of shank3 as a construction material, like plywood. Lots of wood scaffolding may be used to frame a concrete pillar. After the pillar is in place, the wood may be torn down and discarded. Some wood may be discarded at the same time other is being nailed in place for the next pillar, wall or sidewalk. You always want a supply of wood around, but that supply should never be more than the anticipated need. Construction management involves reading blueprints, anticipating needs, ordering the manufacture of materials, and delivering what is needed, on time. Timely and organized manufacture, distribution, utilization and disposal of shank3 very important for the cell.

SHANK3 manufacturing

The SHANK3 gene is simply a blueprint for shank3 protein. The blueprint is converted into a template for stamping out the protein (call mRNA). Gene regulation (via “promoters”) control how many copies of mRNA are created. Each mRNA is degraded and discarded after a certain number of copies of shank3 have been made. While functioning, mRNA is used to stamp out copies of shank3. Shank3 is then transported and collected in a pool of proteins near the synapse. The synapse is a very active site, like the beehive of activity at a busy construction site. Shank3 molecules near the synapse gets incorporated into the “post-synaptic density” as needed. The buzz of activity includes constantly building up and breaking down of shank3 molecules. Old shank3, whether it be after a piece of scaffolding is no longer needed, or if the molecule has been sitting around unused, is degraded and discarded.

Breakdown and disposal of shank3 protein

Shank3 is tagged and trashed by the USP system (ubiquitin-proteasome system). Ubiquitin tags it and the proteasome dissolves it. That is the last step in the life cycle. There is a way of untagging, with a deubiquitinating enzyme (DUB), which I would never even mention except that a recent study looks at untagging as a way to increase shank3 levels at the synapse.

Regulation of shank3 occurs at every step

Many different processes regulate transcription (making the mRNA template), synthesis (stamping out shank3 molecules), incorporation (using the shank3), and degradation (USP system). Each of these processes is a potential therapeutic target for increasing shank3 protein in people who have only one working copy of the SHANK3 gene.

Early work on shank proteins (shank1, shank2 and shank3) focused on how each protein is used at the synapse. Increases in shanks are associated with establishing and maintaining strong synaptic connections, whereas decreases can inhibit the formation of new connections. Too much or too little shank3 affects the sizes or number of synapses. Synapse size is related to information transmission in the brain. Too much information from the wrong channel creates noise. Too little information interferes with learning, memory, skill acquisition or other function. Thus, the early research looked closely at shank3 levels at the synapse.

Shank3 production is largely regulated in the cell nucleus where DNA is found. Each brain cell has only one nucleus, yet it regulates shank3 production for thousands to over 100,000 synapses in that cell. So, the signal to increase and decrease Shank3 production comes from a potentially huge number of synapses and converges at the one and only nucleus. Transcription (making the mRNA template) is regulated by many mechanisms. Most mechanisms influence the “promoter” region of a gene. That is the region where the hardware for reading DNA and making the mRNA template is assembled to do that task. A dizzying array of molecules influence the promoter region. To complicate things even more, shank3 has not one, but 7 total promoter regions that regulate not only when to transcribe, but also which of the 20 to 100 various versions of Shank3 to produce. Yes, there are at minimum 20 versions (isoforms) of shank3 produced during a person’s lifetime. “Turning on and off” a gene is another way of saying the gene is set to transcribe or not. In actuality, neurons that use shank3 don’t turn the genes on or off. Rather, they increase and decrease transcription rate of one, two, up to 20 isoforms of shank3. If it sounds complex, it is. Most papers focus on one or two isoforms. They overlook the rest to make the research manageable. For the moment, it is enough that we recognize that transcription of the SHANK3 gene for making mRNA and many copies of the shank3 protein is regulated at each step. The gene is regulated largely at the promoters, controlling how many mRNA molecules are created for which isoforms. Recent studies have looked for ways to modify the regulation of transcription to compensate for a missing copy of the SHANK3 gene.

Shank3 mRNA is used to synthesize shank3 protein. How rapidly shank3 protein is produced is, like the other steps, under careful regulation. For example, each mRNA does not last forever. At some point it is disassembled (degraded) and can no longer produce protein. Its regulation is yet another possible way to manage shank3 protein production.

As mentioned earlier, shank3 protein is used (or just sits around waiting), and is then broken down by the USP system. Unlike signaling in the nucleus, the USP system is operating at or near the synapse. It can influence shank3 availability on a fine grained scale.

Increasing or decreasing shank3 with blunt instruments

Each step along the life cycle of shank3 is an opportunity to increase the amount of shank3 in the cell. One might be eager to try one or many of the steps on mice or people. This eagerness should be tempered by the potential pitfalls of circumventing the normal regulatory process of the cell. Let’s remember why shank3 is so highly regulated. Shank3 levels must be adjusted at each synapse on an individual basis. Large cells can have up to 200,000 synapses. If we choose to increase shank3 transcription in the nucleus, we may start to force some, perhaps too many, synapses to overproduce shank3. The cell needs to remove unnecessary and unwanted synapses (called “pruning”). Pruning is one of the most important processes in brain development. Another related process is called synaptic homeostasis. One theory about why sleep is important is that it gives the brain a chance to readjust all the synapses to consolidate learning and properly reset the brain for new learning the following day. Both pruning and homeostasis are likely affected by changes in overall shank3 levels.

A drug that simply increases the shank3 in a cell could be beneficial, but we must be wary of blunt instruments. We must be concerned that increasing shank3 by short-cutting the built-in regulation of shank3 may worsen PMS, or perhaps replacing one problem with a new one. This is why a potential drug treatment requires thorough testing in animals to develop a deep understanding of the mechanism of action. Improving one behavior in a mouse is not enough. At a minimum, we need to carefully explore what other behaviors might be affected in the model animal. In this blog, I have not discussed that SHANK3 is used in different ways in different parts of the brain, and regulation is likely to vary for each brain region. Methods to deliver different amounts of a drug to different brain regions are complex and experimental.

Mice are handy experimental animals, but their brain function is not at all like human brain function. In mice, you can remove 100% of all shank3 protein and the mice, although behaviorally unusual, are able to eat, drink, run, play and procreate much like normal mice. Humans missing both copies of SHANK3 are unheard of, most likely because they don’t survive in the womb.

Final thoughts

The take-home messages from the new research are simple enough. First, there is much hype in the online press reports and magazines about scientific progress. The fact is, science is slow and we have a long way to go. The details are sometimes complicated, but the basic principles are not. Second, studies of shank3 have not reached the point where we truly understand the relationship between SHANK3 gene loss and the many problems that result. Progress is being made, but, as often happens in science, the latest results tell us what we thought we understood was not exactly correct.


Previous blogs

Which PMS genes are most associated with Autism?
Does SHANK3 cause Autism?
We need to study interstitial deletions to cure PMS
What do we know about PMS genes?
Which PMS genes are most important?
Are children with Phelan McDermid syndrome insensitive to pain?
Looking for Opportunities
Splitting, Lumping and Clustering
Defining Phelan McDermid syndrome
Why don’t we have better drugs for 22q13 deletion syndrome?
What do parents want to know?
Is 22q13 deletion syndrome a mitochondrial disorder?
Educating children with 22q13 deletion syndrome
How to fix SHANK3
Have you ever met a child like mine?
How do I know which genes are missing?
Mouse modelsScience Leadership
How can the same deletion have such different consequences?
22q13 and the hope of precision medicine
22q13 Deletion Syndrome: hypotonia
Understanding gene size
Gene deletions versus mutations: sometimes missing a gene is better
Is 22q13 deletion syndrome a ciliopathy?
Understanding translocations in 22q13 deletion syndrome: genetics and evolution
Understanding deletion size
Can 22q13 deletion syndrome cause ulcerative colitis?
Can 22q13 deletion syndrome cause cancer?
22q13 deletion syndrome – an introduction


4 thoughts on “Current trends in SHANK3 research

  1. I learn so much from reading your articles. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your information with the rest of us.


  2. I appreciate all the time you continue to spend “to make the complex simple” for the rest of us. I find the observation about Shank versus lowercase shank interesting. Thank you for writing this.


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