Mutations in the SMN1 gene cause all types of spinal muscular atrophy described above. The number of copies of the SMN2 gene modifies the severity of the condition and helps determine which type develops.
The SMN1 and SMN2 genes both provide instructions for making a protein called the survival motor neuron (SMN) protein. Normally, most functional SMN protein is produced from the SMN1 gene, with a small amount produced from the SMN2 gene. Several different versions of the SMN protein are produced from the SMN2 gene, but only one version is functional; the other versions are smaller and quickly broken down. The SMN protein is one of a group of proteins called the SMN complex, which is important for the maintenance of motor neurons. Motor neurons transmit signals from the brain and spinal cord that tell skeletal muscles to tense (contract), which allows the body to move.
Most people with spinal muscular atrophy are missing a piece of the SMN1 gene, which impairs SMN protein production. A shortage of SMN protein leads to motor neuron death, and as a result, signals are not transmitted between the brain and muscles. Muscles cannot contract without receiving signals from the brain, so many skeletal muscles become weak and waste away, leading to the signs and symptoms of spinal muscular atrophy.
Typically, people have two copies of the SMN1 gene and one to two copies of the SMN2 gene in each cell. However, the number of copies of the SMN2 gene varies, with some people having up to eight copies. In people with spinal muscular atrophy, having multiple copies of the SMN2 gene is usually associated with less severe features of the condition that develop later in life. The SMN protein produced by the SMN2 genes can help make up for the protein deficiency caused by SMN1 gene mutations. People with spinal muscular atrophy type 0 usually have one copy of the SMN2 gene in each cell, while those with type I generally have one or two copies, those with type II usually have three copies, those with type III have three or four copies, and those with type IV have four or more copies. Other factors, many unknown, also contribute to the variable severity of spinal muscular atrophy.