The excitotoxin quinolinic acid induces tau phosphorylation in human neurons

Abdur Rahman*, Kaka Ting, Karen M. Cullen, Nady Braidy, Bruce J. Brew, Gilles J. Guillemin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

180 Citations (Scopus)
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Some of the tryptophan catabolites produced through the kynurenine pathway (KP), and more particularly the excitotoxin quinolinic acid (QA), are likely to play a role in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease (AD). We have previously shown that the KP is over activated in AD brain and that QA accumulates in amyloid plaques and within dystrophic neurons. We hypothesized that QA in pathophysiological concentrations affects tau phosphorylation. Using immunohistochemistry, we found that QA is co-localized with hyperphosphorylated tau (HPT) within cortical neurons in AD brain. We then investigated in vitro the effects of QA at various pathophysiological concentrations on tau phosphorylation in primary cultures of human neurons. Using western blot, we found that QA treatment increased the phosphorylation of tau at serine 199/202, threonine 231 and serine 396/404 in a dose dependent manner. Increased accumulation of phosphorylated tau was also confirmed by immunocytochemistry. This increase in tau phosphorylation was paralleled by a substantial decrease in the total protein phosphatase activity. A substantial decrease in PP2A expression and modest decrease in PP1 expression were observed in neuronal cultures treated with QA. These data clearly demonstrate that QA can induce tau phosphorylation at residues present in the PHF in the AD brain. To induce tau phosphorylation, QA appears to act through NMDA receptor activation similar to other agonists, glutamate and NMDA. The QA effect was abrogated by the NMDA receptor antagonist memantine. Using PCR arrays, we found that QA significantly induces 10 genes in human neurons all known to be associated with AD pathology. Of these 10 genes, 6 belong to pathways involved in tau phosphorylation and 4 of them in neuroprotection. Altogether these results indicate a likely role of QA in the AD pathology through promotion of tau phosphorylation. Understanding the mechanism of the neurotoxic effects of QA is essential in developing novel therapeutic strategies for AD.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere6344
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jul 2009
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2009. 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.


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