Transcriptional block of AMPK-induced autophagy promotes glutamate excitotoxicity in nutrient-deprived SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cells

Cell Mol Life Sci. 2020 Sep;77(17):3383-3399. doi: 10.1007/s00018-019-03356-2. Epub 2019 Nov 12.


We investigated the role of autophagy, a controlled lysosomal degradation of cellular macromolecules and organelles, in glutamate excitotoxicity during nutrient deprivation in vitro. The incubation in low-glucose serum/amino acid-free cell culture medium synergized with glutamate in increasing AMP/ATP ratio and causing excitotoxic necrosis in SH-SY5Y human neuroblastoma cells. Glutamate suppressed starvation-triggered autophagy, as confirmed by diminished intracellular acidification, lower LC3 punctuation and LC3-I conversion to autophagosome-associated LC3-II, reduced expression of proautophagic beclin-1 and ATG5, increase of the selective autophagic target NBR1, and decreased number of autophagic vesicles. Similar results were observed in PC12 rat pheochromocytoma cells. Both glutamate-mediated excitotoxicity and autophagy inhibition in starved SH-SY5Y cells were reverted by NMDA antagonist memantine and mimicked by NMDA agonists D-aspartate and ibotenate. Glutamate reduced starvation-triggered phosphorylation of the energy sensor AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) without affecting the activity of mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1, a major negative regulator of autophagy. This was associated with reduced mRNA levels of autophagy transcriptional activators (FOXO3, ATF4) and molecules involved in autophagy initiation (ULK1, ATG13, FIP200), autophagosome nucleation/elongation (ATG14, beclin-1, ATG5), and autophagic cargo delivery to autophagosomes (SQSTM1). Glutamate-mediated transcriptional repression of autophagy was alleviated by overexpression of constitutively active AMPK. Genetic or pharmacological AMPK activation by AMPK overexpression or metformin, as well as genetic or pharmacological autophagy induction by TFEB overexpression or lithium chloride, reduced the sensitivity of nutrient-deprived SH-SY5Y cells to glutamate excitotoxicity. These data indicate that transcriptional inhibition of AMPK-dependent cytoprotective autophagy is involved in glutamate-mediated excitotoxicity during nutrient deprivation in vitro.

Keywords: Brain; Energy stress; Ischemia; Neurodegeneration; Neurotoxicity.

MeSH terms

  • AMP-Activated Protein Kinases / genetics
  • AMP-Activated Protein Kinases / metabolism*
  • Autophagosomes / metabolism
  • Autophagy / drug effects*
  • Autophagy-Related Protein-1 Homolog / metabolism
  • Beclin-1 / metabolism
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Energy Metabolism / drug effects
  • Forkhead Box Protein O3 / metabolism
  • Glutamic Acid / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Ibotenic Acid / pharmacology
  • Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins / metabolism
  • Mechanistic Target of Rapamycin Complex 1 / metabolism
  • Memantine / pharmacology
  • Microtubule-Associated Proteins / genetics
  • Microtubule-Associated Proteins / metabolism
  • Necrosis
  • Neuroblastoma / metabolism
  • Neuroblastoma / pathology
  • Nutrients / deficiency
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / agonists
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / metabolism
  • Sequestosome-1 Protein / genetics
  • Sequestosome-1 Protein / metabolism
  • Transcription, Genetic / drug effects


  • Beclin-1
  • FOXO3 protein, human
  • Forkhead Box Protein O3
  • Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins
  • Microtubule-Associated Proteins
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • SQSTM1 protein, human
  • Sequestosome-1 Protein
  • Ibotenic Acid
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Autophagy-Related Protein-1 Homolog
  • Mechanistic Target of Rapamycin Complex 1
  • ULK1 protein, human
  • AMP-Activated Protein Kinases
  • Memantine