Astrocytes, the most abundant glial cell population in the central nervous system (CNS), play physiological roles in neuronal activities. Oxidative insult induced by the injury to the CNS causes neural cell death through extrinsic and intrinsic pathways. This study reports that reactive oxygen species (ROS) generated by exposure to the strong oxidizing agent, hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)) as a chemical-induced oxidative stress model, caused astrocytes to undergo an apoptosis-like cell death through a caspase-3-independent mechanism. Although activating protein-1 (AP-1) and NF-κB were activated in Cr(VI)-primed astrocytes, the inhibition of their activity failed to increase astrocytic cell survival. The results further indicated that the reduction in mitochondrial membrane potential (MMP) was accompanied by an increase in the levels of ROS in Cr(VI)-primed astrocytes. Moreover, pretreatment of astrocytes with N-acetylcysteine (NAC), the potent ROS scavenger, attenuated ROS production and MMP loss in Cr(VI)-primed astrocytes, and significantly increased the survival of astrocytes, implying that the elevated ROS disrupted the mitochondrial function to result in the reduction of astrocytic cell viability. In addition, the nuclear expression of apoptosis-inducing factor (AIF) and endonuclease G (EndoG) was observed in Cr(VI)-primed astrocytes. Taken together, evidence shows that astrocytic cell death occurs by ROS-induced oxidative insult through a caspase-3-independent apoptotic mechanism involving the loss of MMP and an increase in the nuclear levels of mitochondrial pro-apoptosis proteins (AIF/EndoG). This mitochondria-mediated but caspase-3-independent apoptotic pathway may be involved in oxidative stress-induced astrocytic cell death in the injured CNS.
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