Mechanisms of cell death induced by the mitochondrial toxin 3- nitropropionic acid: Acute excitotoxic necrosis and delayed apoptosis

Zhen Pang, James W. Geddes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

218 Scopus citations


Impaired energy metabolism may play an important role in neuronal cell death after brain ischemia and in late-onset neurodegenerative diseases. Both excitotoxic necrosis and apoptosis have been implicated in cell death induced by metabolic impairment. However, the factors that determine whether cells undergo apoptosis or necrosis are not known. In the present study, metabolic impairment was induced by 3-nitropropionic acid (3-NP), a suicide inhibitor of succinate dehydrogenase. Treatment of cultured rat hippocampal neurons with 3-NP resulted in two types of cell death with distinct morphological, pharmacological, and biochemical features. A rapid necrotic cell death, characterized by cell swelling and nuclear shrinkage, could be completely prevented by the NMDA receptor antagonist MK-801 (10 μM) and dose- dependently potentiated by low micromolar levels of extracellular glutamate. A slowly evolving apoptotic death, characterized by nuclear fragmentation, was not attenuated by MK-801 but was prevented by cycloheximide (1 μg/ml). The combination of MK-801 and cycloheximide resulted in an almost complete protection against 3-NP-induced cell death. DNA fragmentation, detected by the terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP-X 3' nick end- labeling technique, was a late event in apoptosis and also occurred after necrotic cell death. ATP depletion was an early event in the 3-NP-induced neuronal degeneration, and the decline in ATP was exacerbated by glutamate. We conclude that 3-NP triggers two separate cell death pathways: an excitotoxic necrosis as a result of NMDA receptor activation and a delayed apoptosis that is NMDA receptor-independent. Mildly elevated levels of extracellular glutamate shift the cell death mechanism from apoptosis to necrosis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3064-3073
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number9
StatePublished - 1997


  • 3-nitropropionic acid
  • ATP
  • apoptosis
  • energy metabolism
  • excitotoxicity
  • necrosis
  • nuclear fragmentation
  • succinate dehydrogenase

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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