Dying neurons in thalamus of asphyxiated term newborns and rats are autophagic

Ann Neurol. 2014 Nov;76(5):695-711. doi: 10.1002/ana.24257. Epub 2014 Sep 16.


Objective: Neonatal hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) still carries a high burden by its mortality and long-term neurological morbidity in survivors. Apart from hypothermia, there is no acknowledged therapy for HIE, reflecting the lack of mechanistic understanding of its pathophysiology. (Macro)autophagy, a physiological intracellular process of lysosomal degradation, has been proposed to be excessively activated in excitotoxic conditions such as HIE. The present study examines whether neuronal autophagy in the thalamus of asphyxiated human newborns or P7 rats is enhanced and related to neuronal death processes.

Methods: Neuronal autophagy and cell death were evaluated in the thalamus (frequently injured in severe HIE) of both human newborns who died after severe HIE (n = 5) and P7 hypoxic-ischemic rats (Rice-Vannuci model). Autophagic (LC3, p62), lysosomal (LAMP1, cathepsins), and cell death (TUNEL, caspase-3) markers were studied by immunohistochemistry in human and rat brain sections, and by additional methods in rats (immunoblotting, histochemistry, and electron microscopy).

Results: Following severe perinatal asphyxia in both humans and rats, thalamic neurons displayed up to 10-fold (p < 0.001) higher numbers of autophagosomes and lysosomes, implying an enhanced autophagic flux. The highly autophagic neurons presented strong features of apoptosis. These findings were confirmed and elucidated in more detail in rats.

Interpretation: These results show for the first time that autophagy is enhanced in severe HIE in dying thalamic neurons of human newborns, as in rats. Experimental neuroprotective strategies targeting autophagy could thus be a promising lead to follow for the development of future therapeutic approaches.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Asphyxia Neonatorum / pathology*
  • Autophagy*
  • Cell Death*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Lysosomes / enzymology
  • Male
  • Neurons / pathology*
  • Rats
  • Thalamus / pathology*