Background: There is no established biochemical basis for the neurotoxicity of mefloquine. We investigated the possibility that the acute in vitro neurotoxicity of mefloquine might be mediated through a disruptive effect of the drug on endoplasmic reticulum (ER) calcium homeostasis.
Methods: Laser scanning confocal microscopy was employed to monitor real-time changes in basal intracellular calcium concentrations in embryonic rat neurons in response to mefloquine and thapsigargin (a known inhibitor of the ER calcium pump) in the presence and absence of external calcium. Changes in the transcriptional regulation of known ER stress response genes in neurons by mefloquine were investigated using Affymetrix arrays. The MTT assay was employed to measure the acute neurotoxicity of mefloquine and its antagonisation by thapsigargin.
Results: At physiologically relevant concentrations mefloquine was found to mobilize neuronal ER calcium stores and antagonize the pharmacological action of thapsigargin, a specific inhibitor of the ER calcium pump. Mefloquine also induced a sustained influx of extra-neuronal calcium via an unknown mechanism. The transcription of key ER proteins including GADD153, PERK, GRP78, PDI, GRP94 and calreticulin were up-regulated by mefloquine, suggesting that the drug induced an ER stress response. These effects appear to be related, in terms of dose effect and kinetics of action, to the acute neurotoxicity of the drug in vitro.
Conclusions: Mefloquine was found to disrupt neuronal calcium homeostasis and induce an ER stress response at physiologically relevant concentrations, effects that may contribute, at least in part, to the neurotoxicity of the drug in vitro.