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Mol Med. 2000 Nov;6(11):936-46.

Bilirubin and amyloid-beta peptide induce cytochrome c release through mitochondrial membrane permeabilization.

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Centro de Patogénese Molecular, Faculdade de Farmácia, University of Lisbon, Portugal.



The pathogenesis of bilirubin encephalopathy and Alzheimer's disease appears to result from accumulation of unconjugated bilirubin (UCB) and amyloid-beta (Abeta) peptide, respectively, which may cause apoptosis. Permeabilization of the mitochondrial membrane, with release of intermembrane proteins, has been strongly implicated in cell death. Inhibition of the mitochondrial permeability is one pathway by which ursodeoxycholate (UDC) and tauroursodeoxycholate (TUDC) protect against apoptosis in hepatic and nonhepatic cells. In this study, we further characterize UCB- and Abeta-induced cytotoxicty in isolated neural cells, and investigate membrane perturbation during incubation of isolated mitochondria with both agents. In addition, we evaluate whether the anti-apoptotic drugs UDC and TUDC prevent any changes from occurring.


Primary rat neuron and astrocyte cultures were incubated with UCB or Abeta peptide, either alone or in the presence of UDC. Apoptosis was assessed by DNA fragmentation and nuclear morphological changes. Isolated mitochondria were treated with each toxic, either alone or in combination with UDC, TUDC, or cyclosporine A. Mitochondrial swelling was measured spectrophotometrically and cytochrome c protein levels determined by Western blot.


Incubation of neural cells with both UCB and Abeta induced apoptosis (p < 0.01). Coincubation with UDC reduced apoptosis by > 50% (p < 0.05). Both toxins caused membrane permeabilization in isolated mitochondria (p < 0.001); whereas, pretreatment with UDC was protective (p < 0.05). TUDC was even more effective at preventing matrix swelling mediated by Abeta (p < 0.01). UDC and TUDC markedly reduced cytochrome c release associated with mitochondrial permeabilization induced by UCB and Abeta, respectively (p < 0.05). Moreover, cyclosporine A significantly inhibited mitochondrial swelling and cytochrome c efflux mediated by UCB (p < 0.05).


UCB and Abeta peptide activate the apoptotic machinery in neural cells. Toxicity occurs through a mitochondrial-dependent pathway, which in part involves opening of the permeability transition pore. Furthermore, membrane permeabilization is required for cytochrome c release from mitochondria and can be prevented by UDC or TUDC. These data suggest that the mitochondria is a pharmacological target for cytoprotection during unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia and neurodegenerative disorders, and that UDC or TUDC may be potential therapeutic agents.

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