Overview of molecular, cellular, and genetic neurotoxicology

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It has become increasingly evident that the field of neurotoxicology is not only rapidly growing but also rapidly evolving, especially over the last 20 years. As the number of drugs and environmental and bacterial/viral agents with potential neurotoxic properties has grown, the need for additional testing has increased. Only recently has the technology advanced to a level that neurotoxicologic studies can be performed without operating in a "black box." Examination of the effects of agents that are suspected of being toxic can occur on the molecular (protein-protein), cellular (biomarkers, neuronal function), and genetic (polymorphisms) level. Together, these areas help to elucidate the potential toxic profiles of unknown (and in some cases, known) agents. The area of proteomics is one of the fastest growing areas in science and particularly applicable to neurotoxicology. Lubec et al [8] provide a review of the potential and limitations of proteomics. Proteomics focuses on a more comprehensive view of cellular proteins and provides considerably more information about the effects of toxins on the CNS [9]. Proteomics can be classified into three different focuses: post-translational modification, protein-expression profiling, and protein-network mapping. Together, these methods present a more complete and powerful image of protein modifications following potential toxin exposure. Cellular neurotoxicology involves many cellular processes including alterations in cellular energy homeostasis, ion homeostasis, intracellular signaling function, and neurotransmitter release, uptake, and storage. The greatest hurdle in cellular neurotoxicology has been the discovery of appropriate biomarkers that are reliable, reproducible, and easy to obtain. There are biomarkers of exposure, effect, and susceptibility [21]. Finding the appropriate biomarker for a particular toxin is a daunting task. The advantage to biomarker/toxin combinations is they can be detected and measured shortly following exposure and before overt neuroanatomic damage or lesions. Intervention at this point, shortly following exposure, may prevent or at least attenuate further damage to the individual [28]. The use of peripheral biomarkers to assess toxin damage in the CNS has numerous advantages: time-course analysis may be performed, ethical concerns with the use of human subjects can partially be avoided, procedures to acquire samples are less invasive, and in general, peripheral studies are easier to perform. Genetic neurotoxicology comprises two focuses - toxin-induced alterations in genetic expression and genetic alterations that affect toxin metabolism, distribution, and clearance. These differences can be beneficial or toxic. Polymorphisms have been shown to result in altered metabolism of certain toxins (paraoxonase and paraoxon). Conversely, it is possible that some polymorphisms may be beneficial and help prevent the formation of a toxic by-product of an exogenous agent (resistance to ozone-induced lung inflammation). It has also become clear that interactions of potential toxins are not as straightforward as interactions with DNA, causing mutations. There are numerous agents that cause epigenetic responses (cellular alterations that are not mutagenic or cytotoxic). This finding suggests that many agents that may originally have been thought of as nontoxic should be re-examined for potential "indirect" toxicity. With the advancement of the human genome project and the development of a human genome map, the effects of potential toxins on single or multiple genes can be identified. Although collectively, the field of neurotoxicology has recently come a long way, it still has a long way to go to reach its full potential. As technology and methodology advances continue and cooperation with other disciplines such as neuroscience, biochemistry, neurophysiology, and molecular biology is improved, the mechanisms of toxin action will be further elucidated. With this increased understanding will come improved clinical interventions to prevent neuronal damage following exposure to a toxin.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)307-320
Number of pages14
JournalNeurologic Clinics
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2005


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