Off the cuff

New research in mice indicates that muscle atrophy following rotator cuff injuries reveals sex-specific differences in the mechanism of atrophy.

Autophagic vesicles (cyan) in the skeletal muscle of male mouse. Image credit: Meyer et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Muscle atrophy – the gradual loss of muscle mass – follows injuries to our muscles, tendons, or joints. During atrophy, muscles shrink and become weaker, which can interfere with everyday activities and, ultimately, decrease quality of life.

Rotator cuff tears are a common example of such injuries. A rotator cuff is group of four muscles that come together as tendons to form a cuff that normally stabilises our shoulders and allows us to lift and move our arms over our heads. Rotator cuff tears can result from an injury or may be caused by ageing-related wear and tear of the tendon.

A signalling protein, called NFκB, is thought to be involved in muscle atrophy. When the NFκB signal is switched on, it interacts with genes that are thought to speed up the loss of muscle mass. However, NFκB’s precise role in atrophy and recovery after muscle injury is still poorly understood, particularly following injuries where a tendon is cut or torn. Meyer et al. therefore set out to determine whether or not NFκB played a role in the muscle atrophy following rotator cuff tears.

Meyer et al. used genetically engineered mice in which NFκB’s signal could be turned off at the time of rotator cuff injury, and specifically in muscle cells (but not other parts of the body). The experiments revealed that stopping NFκβ signalling in these mice did not reduce muscle atrophy after a rotator cuff injury: the levels of atrophy, muscle performance, and muscle composition were the same regardless of whether the NFκβ signal was active.

The sex of the mice did, however, affect muscle atrophy, specifically the way in which they lost muscle mass. In male mice, the size of muscle cells decreased, while in female mice, the number of muscle cells decreased. Muscle cells in male mice (but not in females) also accumulated abnormally high amounts of protein, which is an indication of a mechanism of muscle breakdown called autophagy.

These results shed new light on the way that we lose muscle mass after injury, and how that could vary depending on the individual. Meyer et al. hope that this study will help guide the development of new, more effective treatments for muscle atrophy, and ultimately contribute to therapies tailored to the characteristics of the patient and the type of injury.