Damage and repair of nerve cell DNA in toxic stress

Glen E. Kisby, Hans Kabel, Jacques Hugon, Peter Spencer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


It is generally agreed that ALS/PDC is triggered by a disappearing environmental factor peculiar to the lifestyle of people of the western Pacific (i.e., Guam, Irian Jaya, Indonesia, and the Kii Peninsula of Japan). A strong candidate is the cycad plant genotoxin cycasin, the β-D-glucoside of methylazoxymethanol (MAM). We propose that prenatal or postnatal exposure to low levels of cycasin/MAM may damage neuronal DNA, compromise DNA repair, perturb neuronal gene expression, and irreversibly alter cell function to precipitate a slowly evolving disease ('slow-toxin' hypothesis). In support of our hypothesis, we have demonstrated the following: 1. DNA from postmitotic rodent central nervous system neurons is particularly sensitive to damage by MAM. 2. MAM reduces DNA repair in human and rodent neurons, whereas DNA- repair inhibitors potentiate MAM-induced DNA damage and toxicity in mature rodent nervous tissue. 3. Human neurons (SY5Y neuroblastoma) that are deficient in DNA repair are susceptible to MAM-induced cytotoxicity and DNA damage, whereas overexpression of DNA repair in similar cells is protective. 4. MAM alters gene expression in SY5Y human neuroblastoma cells and, in the presence of DNA damage and reduced DNA repair, enhances glutamate-modulated expression of tau mRNA in rat primary neurons; the corresponding protein (TAU) is elevated in ALS/PDC and Alzheimer's disease. These findings support a direct relationship between MAM-induced DNA damage and neurotoxicity and suggest the genotoxin may operate in a similar manner in vivo. More broadly, a combination of genotoxin-induced DNA damage (via exogenous and/or endogenous agents) and disturbed DNA repair may be important contributing factors in the slow and progressive degeneration of neurons that is characteristic of sporadic neurodegenerative disease. Preliminary studies demonstrate that DNA repair is reduced in the brain of subjects with western Pacific ALS/PDC, ALS, and Alzheimer's disease, which would increase the susceptibility of brain tissue to DNA damage by endogenous/exogenous genotoxins. Interindividual differences in the extent of prior exposure to DNA-damaging agents and/or the efficiency of its repair might produce population variety in the rate of damage accumulation and explain the susceptibility of certain individuals to sporadic neurodegenerative disease. Studies are underway using DNA-repair proficient and deficient neuronal cell cultures and mutant mice to explore gene-environment interplay with respect to MAM treatment, DNA damage, and DNA repair, and the age-related appearance of neurobehavioral and neuropathological compromise.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)589-618
Number of pages30
JournalDrug Metabolism Reviews
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmaceutics(all)
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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