Activation of the kynurenine pathway and increased production of the excitotoxin quinolinic acid following traumatic brain injury in humans

Edwin B. Yan*, Tony Frugier, Chai K. Lim, Benjamin Heng, Gayathri Sundaram, May Tan, Jeffrey V. Rosenfeld, David W. Walker, Gilles J. Guillemin, Maria Cristina Morganti-Kossmann

*Corresponding author for this work

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    During inflammation, the kynurenine pathway (KP) metabolises the essential amino acid tryptophan (TRP) potentially contributing to excitotoxicity via the release of quinolinic acid (QUIN) and 3-hydroxykynurenine (3HK). Despite the importance of excitotoxicity in the development of secondary brain damage, investigations on the KP in TBI are scarce. In this study, we comprehensively characterised changes in KP activation by measuring numerous metabolites in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from TBI patients and assessing the expression of key KP enzymes in brain tissue from TBI victims. Acute QUIN levels were further correlated with outcome scores to explore its prognostic value in TBI recovery. Methods: Twenty-eight patients with severe TBI (GCS ≤ 8, three patients had initial GCS = 9-10, but rapidly deteriorated to ≤8) were recruited. CSF was collected from admission to day 5 post-injury. TRP, kynurenine (KYN), kynurenic acid (KYNA), QUIN, anthranilic acid (AA) and 3-hydroxyanthranilic acid (3HAA) were measured in CSF. The Glasgow Outcome Scale Extended (GOSE) score was assessed at 6 months post-TBI. Post-mortem brains were obtained from the Australian Neurotrauma Tissue and Fluid Bank and used in qPCR for quantitating expression of KP enzymes (indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase-1 (IDO1), kynurenase (KYNase), kynurenine amino transferase-II (KAT-II), kynurenine 3-monooxygenase (KMO), 3-hydroxyanthranilic acid oxygenase (3HAO) and quinolinic acid phosphoribosyl transferase (QPRTase) and IDO1 immunohistochemistry. Results: In CSF, KYN, KYNA and QUIN were elevated whereas TRP, AA and 3HAA remained unchanged. The ratios of QUIN:KYN, QUIN:KYNA, KYNA:KYN and 3HAA:AA revealed that QUIN levels were significantly higher than KYN and KYNA, supporting increased neurotoxicity. Amplified IDO1 and KYNase mRNA expression was demonstrated on post-mortem brains, and enhanced IDO1 protein coincided with overt tissue damage. QUIN levels in CSF were significantly higher in patients with unfavourable outcome and inversely correlated with GOSE scores. Conclusion: TBI induced a striking activation of the KP pathway with sustained increase of QUIN. The exceeding production of QUIN together with increased IDO1 activation and mRNA expression in brain-injured areas suggests that TBI selectively induces a robust stimulation of the neurotoxic branch of the KP pathway. QUIN's detrimental roles are supported by its association to adverse outcome potentially becoming an early prognostic factor post-TBI.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number110
    Pages (from-to)1-17
    Number of pages17
    JournalJournal of Neuroinflammation
    Publication statusPublished - 30 May 2015

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2015. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


    • patients
    • traumatic brain injury
    • kynurenine pathway
    • tryptophan metabolism
    • quinolinic acid


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