Recent evidence for an expanded role of the kynurenine pathway of tryptophan metabolism in neurological diseases

Michael D. Lovelace, Bianca Varney, Gayathri Sundaram, Matthew J. Lennon, Chai K. Lim, Kelly Jacobs, Gilles J. Guillemin, Bruce J. Brew*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

254 Citations (Scopus)


The kynurenine pathway (KP) of tryptophan metabolism has emerged in recent years as a key regulator of the production of both neuroprotective (e.g. kynurenic and picolinic acid, and the essential cofactor NAD+) and neurotoxic metabolites (e.g. quinolinic acid, 3-hydroxykynurenine). The balance between the production of the two types of metabolites is controlled by key rate-limiting enzymes such as indoleamine-2,3-dioxygenase (IDO-1), and in turn, molecular signals such as interferon-γ (IFN-γ), which activate the KP metabolism of tryptophan by this enzyme, as opposed to alternative pathways for serotonin and melatonin production. Dysregulated KP metabolism has been strongly associated with neurological diseases in recent years, and is the subject of increasing efforts to understand how the metabolites are causative of disease pathology. Concurrent with these endeavours are drug development initiatives to use inhibitors to block certain enzymes in the pathway, resulting in reduced levels of neurotoxic metabolites (e.g. quinolinic acid, an excitotoxin and N-Methyl-D-Aspartate (NMDA) receptor agonist), while in turn enhancing the bioavailability of the neuroprotective metabolites such as kynurenic acid. Neurodegenerative diseases often have a substantial autoimmune or inflammatory component; hence a greater understanding of how KP metabolites influence the inflammatory cascade is required. Additionally, challenges exist in diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) and motor neurone disease (MND), which do not have reliable biomarkers. Clinical diagnosis can often be prolonged in order to exclude other diseases, and often diagnosis occurs at an advanced state of disease pathology, which does not allow a lengthy time for patient assessment and intervention therapies. This review considers the current evidence for involvement of the KP in several neurological diseases, in biomarkers of disease and also the parallels that exist in KP metabolism with what is known in other diseases such as HIV, Alzheimer's disease/dementia, infection, immune privilege and cardiovascular disease. This article is part of the Special Issue entitled ‘The Kynurenine Pathway in Health and Disease’.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)373-388
Number of pages16
Issue numberPartB
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017


  • HIV-acquired neurodeficit disorder
  • Kynurenine pathway
  • Neurodegenerative disease
  • Neuroinflammation


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