Neurotransmitters can have both toxic and trophic functions in addition to their role in neural signaling. Surprisingly, chronic blockade of GABA(A) receptor activity for 5-8 d in vitro enhanced survival of hippocampal neurons, suggesting that GABA(A) receptor overactivation may be neurotoxic. Potentiating GABA(A) receptor activity by chronic treatment with the endogenous neurosteroid (3α,5α)-3-hydroxypregnan-20-one caused massive cell loss over 1 week in culture. Other potentiators of GABA(A) receptors, including benzodiazepines, mimicked the cell loss, suggesting that potentiating endogenous GABA activity is sufficient to produce neuronal death. Neurosteroid-treated neurons had lower resting intracellular calcium levels than control cells and produced smaller calcium rises in response to depolarizing challenges. Manipulating intracellular calcium levels with chronic elevated extracellular potassium or with the calcium channel agonist Bay K 8644 protected neurons. The results may have implications for the mechanisms of programmed cell death in the developing CNS as well as implications for the long-term consequences of chronic GABA-mimetic drug use during development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3147-3156
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number9
StatePublished - May 1 2000


  • Apoptosis
  • Benzodiazepine
  • Calcium
  • GABA
  • Neurosteroid
  • Toxicity


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