Synaptic dysfunction is a key early process in many neurodegenerative diseases, but how this ultimately leads to neuronal loss is not clear. In health, there is ongoing remodelling of synapses and spines in the adult brain: their elimination and formation are continual physiological processes fundamental to learning and memory. But in neurodegenerative disease, including prion disease, lost synapses are not replaced, and their loss is followed by neuronal death. These two processes are separately regulated, with mechanistic, spatial and temporal segregation of the respective death routines of synapses and cell bodies. Mice with prion disease can be cured at the stage of early synaptic dysfunction, when they have reversible impairments at neurophysiological, behavioural and morphological levels. Critically, reversing synaptic dysfunction at this stage of disease rescues neurons, preventing its otherwise inevitable progression to synapse loss and cell death. These findings call for a deeper analysis of the mechanisms underlying neurotoxicity at the synapse, and have important implications for the therapy of prion and other neurodegenerative disorders.

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