A novel in vitro metabolomics approach for neurotoxicity testing, proof of principle for methyl mercury chloride and caffeine

Erwin van Vliet, Siegfried Morath, Chantra Eskes, Jens Linge, Juri Rappsilber, Paul Honegger, Thomas Hartung, Sandra Coecke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is a need for more efficient methods giving insight into the complex mechanisms of neurotoxicity. Testing strategies including in vitro methods have been proposed to comply with this requirement. With the present study we aimed to develop a novel in vitro approach which mimics in vivo complexity, detects neurotoxicity comprehensively, and provides mechanistic insight. For this purpose we combined rat primary re-aggregating brain cell cultures with a mass spectrometry (MS)-based metabolomics approach. For the proof of principle we treated developing re-aggregating brain cell cultures for 48 h with the neurotoxicant methyl mercury chloride (0.1-100 μM) and the brain stimulant caffeine (1-100 μM) and acquired cellular metabolic profiles. To detect toxicant-induced metabolic alterations the profiles were analysed using commercial software which revealed patterns in the multi-parametric dataset by principal component analyses (PCA), and recognised the most significantly altered metabolites. PCA revealed concentration-dependent cluster formations for methyl mercury chloride (0.1-1 μM), and treatment-dependent cluster formations for caffeine (1-100 μM) at sub-cytotoxic concentrations. Four relevant metabolites responsible for the concentration-dependent alterations following methyl mercury chloride treatment could be identified using MS-MS fragmentation analysis. These were γ-aminobutyric acid, choline, glutamine, creatine and spermine. Their respective mass ion intensities demonstrated metabolic alterations in line with the literature and suggest that the metabolites could be biomarkers for mechanisms of neurotoxicity or neuroprotection. In addition, we evaluated whether the approach could identify neurotoxic potential by testing eight compounds which have target organ toxicity in the liver, kidney or brain at sub-cytotoxic concentrations. PCA revealed cluster formations largely dependent on target organ toxicity indicating possible potential for the development of a neurotoxicity prediction model. With such results it could be useful to perform a validation study to determine the reliability, relevance and applicability of this approach to neurotoxicity screening. Thus, for the first time we show the benefits and utility of in vitro metabolomics to comprehensively detect neurotoxicity and to discover new biomarkers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Biomarkers
  • Caffeine
  • Metabolomics
  • Methyl mercury chloride
  • Principal component analysis
  • Re-aggregating brain cell cultures

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Toxicology


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