Antioxidants, oxidative stress, and degenerative neurological disorders

Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 1999 Dec;222(3):236-45. doi: 10.1046/j.1525-1373.1999.d01-140.x.


Recently, clinical trials of several neurodegenerative diseases have increasingly targeted the evaluation of the effectiveness of various antioxidants. The results so far are encouraging but variable and thus confusing. Rationale for the possible clinical effectiveness of antioxidants in several degenerative conditions has arisen out of the many years of basic science generally showing that reactive oxygen species (ROS) and oxidative damage are important factors in the processes involved. Aging is one of the most significant risk factors for degenerative neurological disorders. Basic science efforts in our laboratory have centered on exploring the role of ROS and oxidative stress in neurodegenerative processes. The present review brings together some of the basic concepts we have learned by following this approach for the last 20 years and specifically the results we have obtained by following up on our serendipitous findings that a nitrone-based free radical trap, alpha-phenyl-tert-butylnitrone (PBN), has neuroprotective activity in several experimental neurodegenerative models. The mechanistic basis of the neuroprotective activity of PBN does not appear to rely on its general free radical trapping or antioxidant activity per se, but its activity in mediating the suppression of genes induced by pro-inflammatory cytokines and other mediators associated with enhanced neuroinflammatory processes. Neuroinflammatory processes, induced in part by pro-inflammatory cytokines, yield enhanced ROS and reactive nitric oxide species (RNS) as well as other unknown components that have neurotoxic properties. Neurotoxic amounts of RNS are formed by the activity of inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS). The demonstration of enhanced 3-nitro-tyrosine formation in affected regions of the Alzheimer's brain, in comparison to age-matched controls, reinforces the importance of neuroinflammatory processes. iNOS induction involves activation by phosphorylation of the MAP kinase p38 and can be induced in cultured astrocytes by IL-1beta or H2O2. The action of PBN and N-acetyl cysteine to suppress the activation of p38 was demonstrated in cultured astrocytes. The demonstration of activated p38 in neurons surrounding amyloid plaques in affected regions of the Alzheimer's brain attest to enhanced signal transduction processes in this neurodegenerative condition. The major themes of ROS and RNS formation associated with neuroinflammation processes and the suppression of these processes by antioxidants and PBN continue to yield promising leads for new therapies. Outcomes of clinical trials on antioxidants will become less confusing as more knowledge is amassed on the basic processes involved.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / pharmacology*
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Cyclic N-Oxides
  • Free Radicals
  • Humans
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / metabolism
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / drug therapy
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / etiology*
  • Neuroprotective Agents / pharmacology*
  • Nitrogen Oxides / pharmacology*
  • Nitrogen Oxides / therapeutic use
  • Oxidative Stress*
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Vitamin E / pharmacology
  • p38 Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases


  • Antioxidants
  • Cyclic N-Oxides
  • Free Radicals
  • Neuroprotective Agents
  • Nitrogen Oxides
  • Vitamin E
  • phenyl-N-tert-butylnitrone
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases
  • p38 Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases