Halogenation of amphetamines and methcathinones has become a common method to obtain novel psychoactive substances (NPS) also called "legal highs". The para-halogenated derivatives of amphetamine and methcathinone are available over the internet and have entered the illicit drug market but studies on their potential neurotoxic effects are rare. The primary aim of this study was to explore the neurotoxicity of amphetamine, methcathinone and their para-halogenated derivatives 4-fluoroamphetamine (4-FA), 4-chloroamphetamine (PCA), 4-fluoromethcathinone (4-FMC), and 4-chloromethcathinone (4-CMC) in undifferentiated and differentiated SH-SY5Y cells. We found that 4-FA, PCA, and 4-CMC were cytotoxic (decrease in cellular ATP and plasma membrane damage) for both cell types, whereby differentiated cells were less sensitive. IC50 values for cellular ATP depletion were in the range of 1.4 mM for 4-FA, 0.4 mM for PCA and 1.4 mM for 4-CMC. The rank of cytotoxicity observed for the para-substituents was chloride > fluoride > hydrogen for both amphetamines and cathinones. Each of 4-FA, PCA and 4-CMC decreased the mitochondrial membrane potential in both cell types, and PCA and 4-CMC impaired the function of the electron transport chain of mitochondria in SH-SY5Y cells. 4-FA, PCA, and 4-CMC increased the ROS level and PCA and 4-CMC induced apoptosis by the endogenous pathway. In conclusion, para-halogenation of amphetamine and methcathinone increases their neurotoxic properties due to the impairment of mitochondrial function and induction of apoptosis. Although the cytotoxic concentrations were higher than those needed for pharmacological activity, the current findings may be important regarding the uncontrolled recreational use of these compounds.
Keywords: amphetamine; methcathinone; mitochondria; neurotoxicity; para-halogenation.