Treatment with the calcineurin inhibitor and immunosuppressant cyclosporine A impairs sensorimotor gating in Dark Agouti rats

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2021 Apr;238(4):1047-1057. doi: 10.1007/s00213-020-05751-1. Epub 2020 Dec 21.


Rationale: Calcineurin is a protein regulating cytokine expression in T lymphocytes and calcineurin inhibitors such as cyclosporine A (CsA) are widely used for immunosuppressive therapy. It also plays a functional role in distinct neuronal processes in the central nervous system. Disturbed information processing as seen in neuropsychiatric disorders is reflected by deficient sensorimotor gating, assessed as prepulse inhibition (PPI) of the acoustic startle response (ASR).

Objective: Patients who require treatment with immunosuppressive drugs frequently display neuropsychiatric alterations during treatment with calcineurin inhibitors. Importantly, knockout of calcineurin in the forebrain of mice is associated with cognitive impairments and symptoms of schizophrenia-like psychosis as seen after treatment with stimulants.

Methods: The present study investigated in rats effects of systemic acute and subchronic administration of CsA on sensorimotor gating. Following a single injection with effective doses of CsA, adult healthy male Dark Agouti rats were tested for PPI. For subchronic treatment, rats were injected daily with the same doses of CsA for 1 week before PPI was assessed. Since calcineurin works as a modulator of the dopamine pathway, activity of the enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase was measured in the prefrontal cortex and striatum after accomplishment of the study.

Results: Acute and subchronic treatment with the calcineurin inhibitor CsA disrupted PPI at a dose of 20 mg/kg. Concomitantly, following acute CsA treatment, tyrosine hydroxylase activity was reduced in the prefrontal cortex, which suggests that dopamine synthesis was downregulated, potentially reflecting a stimulatory impact of CsA on this neurotransmitter system.

Conclusions: The results support experimental and clinical evidence linking impaired calcineurin signaling in the central nervous system to the pathophysiology of neuropsychiatric symptoms. Moreover, these findings suggest that therapy with calcineurin inhibitors may be a risk factor for developing neurobehavioral alterations as observed after the abuse of psychomotor stimulant drugs.

Keywords: Calcineurin; Cyclosporine A; Drug side effects; Prepulse inhibition; Sensorimotor gating.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Calcineurin Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Cyclosporine / pharmacology*
  • Dopamine / biosynthesis
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / pharmacology*
  • Male
  • Neostriatum / enzymology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / enzymology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Reflex, Startle / drug effects
  • Sensory Gating / drug effects*
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase / metabolism


  • Calcineurin Inhibitors
  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Cyclosporine
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase
  • Dopamine