The neuromuscular junction (NMJ) is the peripheral synapse formed between a motor neuron axon terminal and a muscle fibre. NMJs are thought to be the primary site of peripheral pathology in many neuromuscular diseases, but innervation/denervation status is often assessed qualitatively with poor systematic criteria across studies, and separately from 3D morphological structure. Here, we describe the development of NMJ-Analyser, to comprehensively screen the morphology of NMJs and their corresponding innervation status automatically. NMJ-Analyser generates 29 biologically relevant features to quantitatively define healthy and aberrant neuromuscular synapses and applies machine learning to diagnose NMJ degeneration. We validated this framework in longitudinal analyses of wildtype mice, as well as in four different neuromuscular disease models: three for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and one for peripheral neuropathy. We showed that structural changes at the NMJ initially occur in the nerve terminal of mutant TDP43 and FUS ALS models. Using a machine learning algorithm, healthy and aberrant neuromuscular synapses are identified with 95% accuracy, with 88% sensitivity and 97% specificity. Our results validate NMJ-Analyser as a robust platform for systematic and structural screening of NMJs, and pave the way for transferrable, and cross-comparison and high-throughput studies in neuromuscular diseases.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience