Leucine competes with kynurenine for blood-to-brain transport and prevents lipopolysaccharide-induced depression-like behavior in mice

Mol Psychiatry. 2019 Oct;24(10):1523-1532. doi: 10.1038/s41380-018-0076-7. Epub 2018 Jul 9.


Inflammation activates indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO) which metabolizes tryptophan into kynurenine. Circulating kynurenine is transported into the brain by the large amino transporter LAT1 at the level of the blood-brain barrier. We hypothesized that administration of leucine that has a high affinity for LAT1 should prevent the entry of kynurenine into the brain and attenuate the formation of neurotoxic kynurenine metabolites. To test whether leucine could prevent inflammation-induced depression-like behavior, mice were treated with lipopolysaccharide (LPS, 0.83 mg/kg IP) or saline and treated with L-leucine (50 mg/kg, IP) or vehicle administered before and 6 h after LPS. Depression-like behavior was measured by increased duration of immobility in the forced swim test and decreased sucrose preference. Leucine decreased brain kynurenine levels, blocked LPS-induced depression-like behavior and had antidepressant-like effects in control mice. Leucine had no effect of its own on sickness behavior and neuroinflammation. To confirm that leucine acts by interfering with the transport of kynurenine into the brain, mice were injected with L-leucine (300 mg/kg, IP) immediately before kynurenine (33 mg/kg IP) and brain kynurenine and depression-like behavior were measured 3 h later. Leucine did prevent the entry of exogenous kynurenine into the brain and abrogated depression-like behavior measured by increased duration of immobility in the forced swim test. Additional experiments using an in vitro model of the blood-brain barrier confirmed that kynurenine competes with leucine at the level of the amino acid transporter LAT1 for brain uptake. These experiments also revealed that efflux was the dominant direction of kynurenine transport and was largely independent of LAT1 and leucine, which explains why leucine could block brain uptake of kynurenine without affecting brain clearance. These findings demonstrate that leucine has antidepressant properties vis-à-vis inflammation-induced depression and one mechanism for this is by blocking the ability of kynurenine to enter the brain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Transport System y+L / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Antidepressive Agents / pharmacology
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / metabolism
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Depression / drug therapy*
  • Depression / metabolism
  • Depressive Disorder / drug therapy
  • Depressive Disorder / metabolism
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Hippocampus / metabolism
  • Indoleamine-Pyrrole 2,3,-Dioxygenase / metabolism
  • Kynurenine / metabolism
  • Leucine / metabolism
  • Leucine / pharmacology*
  • Lipopolysaccharides / pharmacology
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL


  • Amino Acid Transport System y+L
  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Indoleamine-Pyrrole 2,3,-Dioxygenase
  • Lipopolysaccharides
  • Slc7a7 protein, mouse
  • Kynurenine
  • Leucine