In various animal models of cerebral hypoxia-ischemia, it is not clear whether neuronal apoptosis results from hypoxia alone or whether other factors mediate this process. We hypothesized that (1) hypoxia alone can induce neuronal apoptosis, (2) hypoxic severity alters the time course of neuronal apoptosis, (3) hypoxia increases neuronal p53, and this increase in p53 is critical for neuronal apoptosis. Embryonic neocortical neurons cultured for 7-10 days were placed in an incubator with levels set at 0.1%, 1%, and 3% O2 and were removed at 24-h intervals for study. Under all hypoxic conditions, observed changes in cellular morphology and DNA fragmentation, detected by the TUNEL method and gel electrophoresis, were consistent with apoptosis. These alterations were seen after a shorter period with increasing hypoxic severity. Immunoblot analysis revealed an increase in p53 protein in hypoxia-exposed neurons. Analysis of immunofluorescence-stained neurons revealed increases in p53 with increased duration and severity of hypoxia. Antisense oligonucleotides for p53 significantly increased the number of surviving neurons during hypoxic exposure. We conclude that hypoxia-induced neuronal apoptosis is, in part, a p53-dependent process whose time course is influenced by hypoxic severity and duration.
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