Mutations in rhodopsin (RHO) are a common cause of retinal dystrophy and can be transmitted by dominant or recessive inheritance. Clinical symptoms caused by dominant and recessive mutations in patients and animal models are very similar but the molecular mechanisms leading to retinal degeneration may differ. We characterized three murine models of retina degeneration caused by either Rho loss of function or expression of the P23H dominant mutation in Rho. Rho loss of function is characterized by activation of calpains and apoptosis-inducing factor (Aif) in dying photoreceptors. Retinas bearing the P23H dominant mutations activate both the calpain-Aif cell death pathway and ER-stress responses that together contribute to photoreceptor cell demise. In vivo treatment with the calpastatin peptide, a calpain inhibitor, was strongly neuroprotective in mice lacking Rho while photoreceptor survival in retinas expressing the P23H dominant mutation was more affected by treatment with salubrinal, an inhibitor of the ER-stress pathway. The further reduction of photoreceptor cell demise by co-treatment with calpastatin and salubrinal suggests co-activation of the calpain and ER-stress death pathways in mice bearing dominant mutations in the Rho gene.

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