Excitotoxic versus apoptotic mechanisms of neuronal cell death in perinatal Hypoxia/Ischemia

Chainllie Young, Tatyana Tenkova, Krikor Dikranian, John W. Olney

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Hypoxic/ischemic (H/I) neuronal degeneration in the developing central nervous system (CNS) is mediated by an excitotoxic mechanism, and it has also been reported that an apoptosis mechanism is involved. However, there is much disagreement regarding how excitotoxic and apoptotic cell death processes relate to one another. Some authors believe that an excitotoxic stimulus directly triggers apoptotic cell death, but this interpretation is largely speculative at the present time. Our findings support the interpretation that excitotoxic and apoptotic neurodegeneration are two separate and distinct cell death processes that can be distinguished from one another by ultrastructural evaluation. Here we review evidence supporting this interpretation, including evidence that H/I in the developing CNS triggers two separate waves of neurodegeneration, the first being excitotoxic and the second being apoptotic. The first (excitotoxic) wave destroys neurons that would normally provide synaptic inputs or synaptic targets for the neurons that die in the second (apoptotic) wave. Since neurons, during the developmental period of synaptogenesis, are programmed to commit suicide if they fail to achieve normal connectivity, this explains why neuroapoptosis occurs following H/I in the developing CNS. However, it does not support the interpretation that H/I directly triggers apoptotic neurodegeneration. Rather, it documents that H/I directly triggers excitotoxic neurodegeneration, and apoptotic neurodegeneration ensues subsequently as the natural response of developing neurons to a specific kind of deprivation - loss of the ability to form normal synaptic connections.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77-85
Number of pages9
JournalCurrent Molecular Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2004


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