In rat cerebellar granule cells both reactive oxygen species production and release of cytochrome c take place during glutamate toxicity. This investigation was aimed (i) to ascertain whether and how these two processes are related and (ii) to gain insight into the role played by the released cytochrome c in the onset of neurotoxicity. Cytochrome c release takes place owing to the generation of reactive oxygen species both in glutamate-treated cerebellar granule cells and in sister control cultures incubated in the presence of the reactive oxygen species-generating system consisting of xanthine plus xanthine oxidase. In the early phase of neurotoxicity (30-min glutamate exposure) about 40% of the maximum (as measured at 3 h of glutamate exposure) cytochrome c release was found to occur in cerebellar granule cells from mitochondria that were essentially coupled and intact and that had a negligible production of oxygen free radicals. Contrarily, mitochondria from cells treated with glutamate for 3 h were mostly uncoupled and produced reactive oxygen species at a high rate. The cytosolic fraction containing the released cytochrome c was able to transfer electrons from superoxide anion to molecular oxygen via the respiratory chain and was found to partially prevent glutamate toxicity when added externally to cerebellar neurons undergoing necrosis. In the light of these findings, we propose that in the early phase of neurotoxicity, cytochrome c release can be part of a cellular and mitochondrial defense mechanism against oxidative stress.
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