Astrocytes in heavy metal neurotoxicity and neurodegeneration

Baoman Li, Maosheng Xia, Robert Zorec, Vladimir Parpura, Alexei Verkhratsky

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With the industrial development and progressive increase in environmental pollution, the mankind overexposure to heavy metals emerges as a pressing public health issue. Excessive intake of heavy metals, such as arsenic (As), manganese (Mn), mercury (Hg), aluminium (Al), lead (Pb), nickel (Ni), bismuth (Bi), cadmium (Cd), copper (Cu), zinc (Zn), and iron (Fe), is neurotoxic and it promotes neurodegeneration. Astrocytes are primary homeostatic cells in the central nervous system. They protect neurons against all types of insults, in particular by accumulating heavy metals. However, this makes astrocytes the main target for heavy metals neurotoxicity. Intake of heavy metals affects astroglial homeostatic and neuroprotective cascades including glutamate/GABA-glutamine shuttle, antioxidative machinery and energy metabolism. Deficits in these astroglial pathways facilitate or even instigate neurodegeneration. In this review, we provide a concise outlook on heavy metal-induced astrogliopathies and their association with major neurodegenerative disorders. In particular, we focus on astroglial mechanisms of iron-induced neurotoxicity. Iron deposits in the brain are detected in main neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Accumulation of iron in the brain is associated with motor and cognitive impairments and iron-induced histopathological manifestations may be considered as the potential diagnostic biomarker of neurodegenerative diseases. Effective management of heavy metal neurotoxicity can be regarded as a potential strategy to prevent or retard neurodegenerative pathologies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147234
JournalBrain research
Early online date5 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jan 2021


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