DNA damage in neurons is implicated in the pathogenesis of several neurodegenerative disorders and may also contribute to the often severe neurological complications in cancer patients treated with chemotherapeutic agents. DNA damage can trigger apoptosis, a form of controlled cell death that involves activation of cysteine proteases called caspases. The excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate plays central roles in the activation of neurons and in processes such as learning and memory, but overactivation of ionotropic glutamate receptors can induce either apoptosis or necrosis. Glutamate receptors of the AMPA (α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionate) type mediate such physiological and pathological processes in most neurons. We now report that DNA damage can alter glutamate receptor channel activity by a mechanism involving activation of caspases. Whole-cell patch clamp analyses revealed a marked decrease in AMPA-induced currents after exposure of neurons to camptothecin, a topoisomerase inhibitor that induces DNA damage; N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)-induced currents were unaffected by camptothecin. The decrease in AMPA-induced current was accompanied by a decreased calcium response to AMPA. Pharmacological inhibition of caspases abolished the effects of camptothecin on AMPA-induced current and calcium responses, and promoted excitotoxic necrosis. Combined treatment with glutamate receptor antagonists and a caspase inhibitor prevented camptothecin-induced neuronal death. Caspase-mediated suppression of AMPA currents may allow neurons with damaged DNA to withdraw their participation in excitatory circuits and undergo apoptosis, thereby avoiding widespread necrosis. These findings have important implications for treatment of patients with cancer and neurodegenerative disorders.
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