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J Neurochem. 1998 Sep;71(3):946-59.

Role of caspases in N-methyl-D-aspartate-induced apoptosis in cerebrocortical neurons.

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Cerebrovascular and NeuroScience Research Institute, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.


Overactivation of glutamate receptors mediates neuronal death in several acute and chronic neurodegenerative diseases. The intracellular processes underlying this form of death, however, remain poorly understood. Depending on the severity of insult, N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor activation induces either apoptosis or necrosis. Cysteine proteases related to interleukin-1beta-converting enzyme (ICE), recently termed caspases, appear necessary for neuronal apoptosis in vivo and in vitro. To determine whether caspases play a role in NMDA-induced apoptosis, we used two functionally distinct approaches to decrease substrate cleavage by caspases. One is a novel peptide (V-ICEinh) that contains the caspase catalytic site and acts as a pseudoenzyme that binds caspase substrates and prevents their cleavage. The other is a pseudosubstrate peptide (Z-VAD x fmk) that inhibits caspase activity. Pretreatment with either V-ICEinh or Z-VAD-fmk protects cerebrocortical neurons from NMDA-induced apoptosis, suggesting a role for caspases in NMDA-induced apoptosis. To explore the signaling pathways involved, we looked at the effects of NMDA receptor activation on Ca2+ influx, production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), mitochondrial membrane potential, and lipid peroxidation. Neither NMDA-induced Ca2+ influx nor the initial collapse of mitochondrial membrane potential could be prevented by pretreatment with V-ICEinh or Z-VAD x fmk. In contrast, ROS formation and lipid peroxidation were completely blocked by both V-ICEinh and Z-VAD x fmk. Taken together, our results suggest that Ca2+ influx and mitochondrial depolarization occur upstream from caspase activation, whereas ROS formation and lipid peroxidation may be downstream events in the cascade leading to cortical neuronal apoptosis.

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