Excitotoxic neuronal death in the immature brain is an apoptosis- necrosis morphological continuum

Carlos Portera-Cailliau, Donald L. Price, Lee J. Martin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

332 Scopus citations


Glutamate-induced excitotoxicity is a clinically relevant degenerative process that causes selective neuronal death by mechanisms that remain unclear. Cell death is usually classified as apoptotic or necrotic based on biochemical and morphological criteria. Excitotoxic lesions in the adult rat striatum result in neuronal death associated with apoptotic DNA laddering despite a necrotic appearance of neurons ultrastructurally. This suggests that apoptosis and necrosis may not be mutually exclusive modes of cell death. Here, we characterized normal developmental cell death in the newborn rat brain with respect to DNA fragmentation patterns and ultrastructural morphology to establish a standard for apoptosis in the nervous system, and we concluded that it is essentially indistinguishable from apoptosis described in other tissues. We then investigated whether brain maturity could influence the morphology of neuronal death in vivo in the excitotoxically lesioned newborn rat forebrain. Kainic acid induced DNA laddering and death of neurons exhibiting a variety of morphologies, ranging from necrosis to apoptosis. In neurons that were dying by apoptosis, morphologic changes were characterized by a highly ordered sequence of organelle abnormalities, with swelling of endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi vesiculation preceding most nuclear changes and mitochondrial disruption. We concluded that brain maturity influences the morphologic phenotype of neurodegeneration and that excitotoxic neuronal death in the immature brain is not a uniform event but, rather, a continuum of apoptotic, necrotic, and overlapping morphologies. This excitotoxic paradigm might prove useful for analyzing the mechanisms that govern cell death under physiological and pathological conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10-87
Number of pages78
JournalJournal of Comparative Neurology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 3 1997


  • development
  • glutamate
  • neocortex
  • programmed cell death

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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