Neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM) is expressed by muscle and involved in muscle-neuron and muscle-muscle cell interactions. The expression in muscle is regulated during myogenesis and by the state of innervation. In aged muscle, both neurogenic and myogenic degenerative processes occur. We here report quantitative and qualitative changes in NCAM protein and mRNA forms during aging in normal rat skeletal muscle. Determination of the amount of NCAM by e.l.i.s.a. showed that the level decreased from perinatal to adult age, followed by a considerable increase in 24-month-old rat muscle. Thus NCAM concentration in aged muscle was sixfold higher than in young adult muscle. In contrast with previous reports, NCAM polypeptides of 200, 145, 125 and 120 kDa were observed by immunoblotting throughout postnatal development and aging, the relative proportions of the individual NCAM polypeptides remaining virtually unchanged at all ages examined. However, changes in the extent of sialylation of NCAM were demonstrated. Even though the relative amounts of the various NCAM polypeptides were unchanged during aging, distinct changes in NCAM mRNA classes were observed. Three NCAM mRNA classes of 6.7, 5.2 and 2.9 kb were present in perinatal and young adult skeletal muscle, whereas only the 5.2 and 2.9 kb mRNA classes could be demonstrated in aged muscle. This indicates that metabolism of the various NCAM polypeptides is individually regulated during aging. Alternative splicing of NCAM mRNA in skeletal muscle was studied by Northern blotting using DNA oligonucleotide probes specifically hybridizing to selected exons or exon combinations. Exon VASE, which has previously been shown to be present in both brain and heart NCAM mRNA, was virtually absent from skeletal muscle at all ages studied. In contrast, the majority of NCAM mRNA in postnatal skeletal muscle was shown to contain extra exons inserted between exons 12 and 13. Of the various possible exon combinations at this splice site, the combinations 12-a-AAG-13 and 12-a-b seemed to be prevalent in postnatal skeletal muscle. No significant change in the relative proportion of these two exon combinations occurred during aging. The observed upregulation of NCAM protein in aged muscle supports the assumption that an increasing proportion of muscle fibres are denervated in aged muscle. Selective upregulation of the 5.2 and 2.9 kb mRNA forms have previously been demonstrated in muscle cell lines and in primary cultures of muscle cells during formation of myotubes in vitro, and this switch in NCAM mRNA classes has been suggested to correlate with myogenesis.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)

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