Translocator Protein Ligand Protects against Neurodegeneration in the MPTP Mouse Model of Parkinsonism

J Neurosci. 2019 May 8;39(19):3752-3769. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2070-18.2019. Epub 2019 Feb 22.


Parkinson's disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease, after Alzheimer's disease. Parkinson's disease is a movement disorder with characteristic motor features that arise due to the loss of dopaminergic neurons from the substantia nigra. Although symptomatic treatment by the dopamine precursor levodopa and dopamine agonists can improve motor symptoms, no disease-modifying therapy exists yet. Here, we show that Emapunil (AC-5216, XBD-173), a synthetic ligand of the translocator protein 18, ameliorates degeneration of dopaminergic neurons, preserves striatal dopamine metabolism, and prevents motor dysfunction in female mice treated with the MPTP, as a model of parkinsonism. We found that Emapunil modulates the inositol requiring kinase 1α (IRE α)/X-box binding protein 1 (XBP1) unfolded protein response pathway and induces a shift from pro-inflammatory toward anti-inflammatory microglia activation. Previously, Emapunil was shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and to be safe and well tolerated in a Phase II clinical trial. Therefore, our data suggest that Emapunil may be a promising approach in the treatment of Parkinson's disease.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Our study reveals a beneficial effect of Emapunil on dopaminergic neuron survival, dopamine metabolism, and motor phenotype in the MPTP mouse model of parkinsonism. In addition, our work uncovers molecular networks which mediate neuroprotective effects of Emapunil, including microglial activation state and unfolded protein response pathways. These findings not only contribute to our understanding of biological mechanisms of translocator protein 18 (TSPO) function but also indicate that translocator protein 18 may be a promising therapeutic target. We thus propose to further validate Emapunil in other Parkinson's disease mouse models and subsequently in clinical trials to treat Parkinson's disease.

Keywords: MPTP; Parkinson's disease; TSPO; microglia; neurodegeneration.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Corpus Striatum / drug effects
  • Corpus Striatum / metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / metabolism
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / pathology
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / prevention & control
  • Neuroprotective Agents / metabolism*
  • Neuroprotective Agents / pharmacology
  • Neuroprotective Agents / therapeutic use
  • Parkinsonian Disorders / metabolism*
  • Parkinsonian Disorders / pathology
  • Parkinsonian Disorders / prevention & control*
  • Purines / metabolism*
  • Purines / pharmacology
  • Purines / therapeutic use
  • Receptors, GABA / metabolism*


  • Bzrp protein, mouse
  • Ligands
  • N-benzyl-N-ethyl-2-(7,8-dihydro-7-methyl-8-oxo-2-phenyl-9H-purin-9-yl)acetamide
  • Neuroprotective Agents
  • Purines
  • Receptors, GABA