MDMA-induced neurotoxicity of serotonin neurons involves autophagy and rilmenidine is protective against its pathobiology

Linda D. Mercer, Gavin C. Higgins, Chew L. Lau, Andrew J. Lawrence, Philip M. Beart

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21 Citations (Scopus)


Toxicity of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) towards biogenic amine neurons is well documented and in primate brain predominantly affects serotonin (5-HT) neurons. MDMA induces damage of 5-HT axons and nerve fibres and intracytoplasmic inclusions. Whilst its pathobiology involves mitochondrially-mediated oxidative stress, we hypothesised MDMA possessed the capacity to activate autophagy, a proteostatic mechanism for degradation of cellular debris. We established a culture of ventral pons from embryonic murine brain enriched in 5-HT neurons to explore mechanisms of MDMA neurotoxicity and recruitment of autophagy, and evaluated possible neuroprotective actions of the clinically approved agent rilmenidine. MDMA (100 μM–1 mM) reduced cell viability, like rapamycin (RM) and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), in a concentration- and time-dependent manner. Immunocytochemistry revealed dieback of 5-HT arbour: MDMA-induced injury was slower than for RM and H2O2, neuritic blebbing occurred at 48 and 72 h and Hoechst labelling revealed nuclear fragmentation with 100 μM MDMA. MDMA effected concentration-dependent inhibition of [3H]5-HT uptake with 500 μM MDMA totally blocking transport. Western immunoblotting for microtubule associated protein light chain 3 (LC3) revealed autophagosome formation after treatment with MDMA. Confocal analyses and immunocytochemistry for 5-HT, Hoechst and LC3 confirmed MDMA induced autophagy with abundant LC3-positive puncta within 5-HT neurons. Rilmenidine (1 μM) protected against MDMA-induced injury and image analysis showed full preservation of 5-HT arbours. MDMA had no effect on GABA neurons, indicating specificity of action at 5-HT neurons. MDMA-induced neurotoxicity involves autophagy induction in 5-HT neurons, and rilmenidine via beneficial actions against toxic intracellular events represents a potential treatment for its pathobiology in sustained usage.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)80-90
Number of pages11
JournalNeurochemistry International
Publication statusPublished - May 2017


  • MDMA
  • serotonin neuron
  • programmed cell death
  • rilmenidine
  • mTOR-independent autophagy
  • neuroprotection

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