Fatal breathing dysfunction in a mouse model of Leigh syndrome

Leigh syndrome (LS) is a subacute necrotizing encephalomyelopathy with gliosis in several brain regions that usually results in infantile death. Loss of murine Ndufs4, which encodes NADH dehydrogenase (ubiquinone) iron-sulfur protein 4, results in compromised activity of mitochondrial complex I as well as progressive neurodegenerative and behavioral changes that resemble LS. Here, we report the development of breathing abnormalities in a murine model of LS. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed hyperintense bilateral lesions in the dorsal brain stem vestibular nucleus (VN) and cerebellum of severely affected mice. The mutant mice manifested a progressive increase in apnea and had aberrant responses to hypoxia. Electrophysiological recordings within the ventral brain stem pre-Bötzinger respiratory complex were also abnormal. Selective inactivation of Ndufs4 in the VN, one of the principle sites of gliosis, also led to breathing abnormalities and premature death. Conversely, Ndufs4 restoration in the VN corrected breathing deficits and prolonged the life span of knockout mice. These data demonstrate that mitochondrial dysfunction within the VN results in aberrant regulation of respiration and contributes to the lethality of Ndufs4-knockout mice.