Role of oxidative stress and the mitochondrial permeability transition in methylmercury cytotoxicity

Marianne Polunas, Alycia Halladay, Ronald B. Tjalkens, Martin A. Philbert, Herbert Lowndes, Kenneth Reuhl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

35 Scopus citations


Oxidative stress has been implicated in the pathogenesis of methylmercury (MeHg) neurotoxicity. Studies of mature neurons suggest that the mitochondrion may be a major source of MeHg-induced reactive oxygen species and a critical mediator of MeHg-induced neuronal death, likely by activation of apoptotic pathways. It is unclear, however, whether the mitochondria of developing and mature neurons are equally susceptible to MeHg. Murine embryonal carcinoma (EC) cells, which differentiate into neurons following exposure to retinoic acid, were used to compare the differentiation-dependent effects of MeHg on ROS production and mitochondrial depolarization. EC cells and their neuronal derivatives were pre-incubated with the ROS indicator 2',7'-dichlorofluoroscein diacetate or tetramethylrhodamine methyl ester, an indicator of mitochondrial membrane potential, with or without cyclosporin A (CsA), an inhibitor of mitochondrial permeability transition pore opening, and examined by laser scanning confocal microscopy in the presence of 1.5 μM MeHg. To examine consequences of mitochondrial perturbation, immunohistochemical localization of cytochrome c (cyt c) was determined after incubation of cells in MeHg for 4. h. MeHg treatment induced earlier and significantly higher levels of ROS production and more extensive mitochondrial depolarization in neurons than in undifferentiated EC cells. CsA completely inhibited mitochondrial depolarization by MeHg in EC cells but only delayed this response in the neurons. In contrast, CsA significantly inhibited MeHg-induced neuronal ROS production. Cyt c release was also more extensive in neurons, with less protection afforded by CsA. These data indicate that neuronal differentiation state influences mitochondrial transition pore dynamics and MeHg-stimulated production of ROS.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)526-534
Number of pages9
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Toxicology


  • Apoptosis
  • Methylmercury
  • Mitochondrial permeability transition
  • Neurotoxicity
  • Reactive oxygen species

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