LBSL (leukoencephalopathy with brain stem and spinal cord involvement and lactate elevation) is an autosomal recessive white matter disorder with slowly progressive cerebellar ataxia, spasticity and dorsal column dysfunction. Magnetic resonance imaging shows characteristic abnormalities in the cerebral white matter and specific brain stem and spinal cord tracts. LBSL is caused by mutations in the gene DARS2, which encodes mtAspRS (mitochondrial aspartyl-tRNA synthetase). The selective involvement of specific white matter tracts in LBSL is striking since this protein is ubiquitously expressed. Almost all LBSL patients have one mutation in intron 2 of DARS2, affecting the splicing of the third exon. Using a splicing reporter construct, we find cell-type-specific differences in the sensitivity to these mutations: the mutations have a larger effect on exon 3 exclusion in neural cell lines, especially neuronal cell lines, than in non-neural cell lines. Furthermore, correct inclusion of exon 3 in the normal mtAspRS mRNA occurs less efficiently in neural cells than in other cell types, and this effect is again most pronounced in neuronal cells. The combined result of these two effects may explain the selective vulnerability of specific white matter tracts in LBSL patients.

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