Cocaine elicits autophagic cytotoxicity via a nitric oxide-GAPDH signaling cascade

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Cocaine exerts its behavioral stimulant effects by facilitating synaptic actions of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. It is also neurotoxic and broadly cytotoxic, leading to overdose deaths. We demonstrate that the cytotoxic actions of cocaine reflect selective enhancement of autophagy, a process that physiologically degrades metabolites and cellular organelles, and that uncontrolled autophagy can also lead to cell death. In brain cultures, cocaine markedly increases levels of LC3-II and depletes p62, both actions characteristic of autophagy. By contrast, cocaine fails to stimulate cell death processes reflecting parthanatos, monitored by cleavage of poly(ADP ribose)polymerase- 1 (PARP-1), or necroptosis, assessed by levels of phosphorylated mixed lineage kinase domain-like protein. Pharmacologic inhibition of autophagy protects neurons against cocaine-induced cell death. On the other hand, inhibition of parthanatos, necroptosis, or apoptosis did not change cocaine cytotoxicity. Depletion of ATG5 or beclin-1, major mediators of autophagy, prevents cocaine-induced cell death. By contrast, depleting caspase-3, whose cleavage reflects apoptosis, fails to alter cocaine cytotoxicity, and cocaine does not alter caspase-3 cleavage. Moreover, depleting PARP-1 or RIPK1, key mediators of parthanatos and necroptosis, respectively, did not prevent cocaine- induced cell death. Autophagic actions of cocaine are mediated by the nitric oxide-glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase signaling pathway. Thus, cocaine-associated autophagy is abolished by depleting GAPDH via shRNA; by the drug CGP3466B, which prevents GAPDH nitrosylation; and by mutating cysteine-150 of GAPDH, its site of nitrosylation. Treatments that selectively influence cocaine-associated autophagy may afford therapeutic benefit.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1417-1422
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number5
StatePublished - Feb 2 2016


  • Autophagy
  • Cell death
  • Cocaine
  • Nitric oxide

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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