We developed a bioassay to screen a panel of botanical insecticides to identify those that activate adaptive stress responses in neurons at subtoxic doses. Many phytochemicals function as noxious agents that protect plants against insects and other damaging organisms. However, at subtoxic doses the same phytochemicals may activate adaptive cellular stress response pathways that can protect cells against a variety of adverse conditions. We screened a panel of botanical pesticides using cultured human and rodent neural cell models, and identified plumbagin as a potent activator of the nuclear factor E2-related factor 2 (Nrf2)/ antioxidant response element (ARE) pathway. Subtoxic concentrations of plumbagin increase nuclear localization and transcriptional activity of Nrf2 and induce the expression of the Nrf2/ARE-dependent gene heme oxygenase 1 (HO-1) in human neuroblastoma cells. Plumbagin specifically activates the Nrf2/ARE pathway in primary cortical neurons from ARE-human placental alkaline phosphatase (hPAP) reporter mice. The activation of the ARE and the induction of HO-1 are abolished by RNA interference-mediated knockdown of Nrf2 expression. Exposure of neuroblastoma cells and primary cortical neurons to plumbagin provides protection against subsequent oxidative and metabolic insults. The induction of HO-1 and the neuroprotective effects of plumbagin involve the PI3K/Akt signaling pathway upstream of Nrf2 activation. Intravenous administration of plumbagin significantly reduces the amount of brain damage and ameliorates associated neurological deficits in a mouse model of focal ischemic stroke. Our findings establish precedence for the identification and characterization of neuroprotective phytochemicals based upon their ability to activate adaptive cellular stress response pathways. Glutamate, the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain, activates receptors coupled to membrane depolarization and Ca(2+) influx that mediates functional responses of neurons including processes such as learning and memory. Here we show that reversible nuclear oxidative DNA damage occurs in cerebral cortical neurons in response to transient glutamate receptor activation using non-toxic physiological levels of glutamate. This DNA damage was prevented by intracellular Ca(2+) chelation, the mitochondrial superoxide dismutase mimetic MnTMPyP (Mn-5,10,15,20-tetra(4-pyridyl)-21H,23H-porphine chloride tetrakis(methochloride)), and blockade of the permeability transition pore. The repair of glutamate-induced DNA damage was associated with increased DNA repair activity and increased mRNA and protein levels of apurinic endonuclease 1 (APE1). APE1 knockdown induced accumulation of oxidative DNA damage after glutamate treatment, suggesting that APE1 is a key repair protein for glutamate-induced DNA damage. A cAMP-response element-binding protein (CREB) binding sequence is present in the Ape1 gene (encodes APE1 protein) promoter and treatment of neurons with a Ca(2+)/calmodulin-dependent kinase inhibitor (KN-93) blocked the ability of glutamate to induce CREB phosphorylation and APE1 expression. Selective depletion of CREB using RNA interference prevented glutamate-induced up-regulation of APE1. Thus, glutamate receptor stimulation triggers Ca(2+)- and mitochondrial reactive oxygen species-mediated DNA damage that is then rapidly repaired by a mechanism involving Ca(2+)-induced, CREB-mediated APE1 expression. Our findings reveal a previously unknown ability of neurons to efficiently repair oxidative DNA lesions after transient activation of glutamate receptors. In pathological conditions such as ischemic stroke, excessive DNA damage can trigger the death of neurons. Oxidative DNA damage is mainly repaired by base excision repair (BER), a process initiated by DNA glycosylases that recognize and remove damaged DNA bases. Endonuclease VIII-like 1 (NEIL1) is a DNA glycosylase that recognizes a broad range of oxidative lesions. Here, we show that mice lacking NEIL1 exhibit impaired memory retention in a water maze test, but no abnormalities in tests of motor performance, anxiety, or fear conditioning. NEIL1 deficiency results in increased brain damage and a defective functional outcome in a focal ischemia/reperfusion model of stroke. The incision capacity on a 5-hydroxyuracil-containing bubble substrate was lower in the ipsilateral side of ischemic brains and in the mitochondrial lysates of unstressed old NEIL1-deficient mice. These results indicate that NEIL1 plays an important role in learning and memory and in protection of neurons against ischemic injury. Huntington's disease (HD) is an inherited neurodegenerative disorder caused by expanded polyglutamine repeats in the huntingtin (Htt) protein. Because electroconvulsive shock (ECS) can stimulate the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and protect neurons against stress, we determined whether ECS treatment would modify the disease process and provide a therapeutic benefit in a mouse model of HD. ECS (50 mA for 0.2 s) or sham treatment was administered once weekly to male N171-82Q Htt mutant mice beginning at 2 months of age. Endpoints measured included motor function, striatal and cortical pathology, and levels of protein chaperones and BDNF. ECS treatment delayed the onset of motor symptoms and body weight loss and extended the survival of HD mice. Striatal neurodegeneration was attenuated and levels of protein chaperones (Hsp70 and Hsp40) and BDNF were elevated in striatal neurons of ECS-treated compared with sham-treated HD mice. Our findings demonstrate that ECS can increase the resistance of neurons to mutant Htt resulting in improved functional outcome and extended survival. The potential of ECS as an intervention in subjects that inherit the mutant Htt gene merits further consideration. In related studies we found that overexpression of sirtuin 1 (Sirt1), a mediator of the beneficial metabolic effects of calorie restriction, protects neurons against mutant HTT toxicity, whereas reduction of Sirt1 exacerbates mutant HTT toxicity. Overexpression of Sirt1 improves motor function, reduces brain atrophy and attenuates mutant-HTT-mediated metabolic abnormalities in Huntington's disease mice. Further mechanistic studies suggested that Sirt1 prevents the mutant-HTT-induced decline in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) concentrations and the signaling of its receptor, TrkB, and restores dopamine- and cAMP-regulated phosphoprotein, 32 kDa (DARPP32) concentrations in the striatum. Sirt1 deacetylase activity is required for Sirt1-mediated neuroprotection in Huntington's disease cell models. Notably, we show that mutant HTT interacts with Sirt1 and inhibits Sirt1 deacetylase activity, which results in hyperacetylation of Sirt1 substrates such as forkhead box O3A (Foxo3a), thereby inhibiting its pro-survival function. Overexpression of Sirt1 counteracts the mutant-HTT-induced deacetylase deficit, enhances the deacetylation of Foxo3a and facilitates cell survival. These findings show a neuroprotective role for Sirt1 in mammalian Huntington's disease models and open new avenues for the development of neuroprotective strategies in Huntington's disease.

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