Growing animal evidence demonstrates that prolonged exposure to propofol during brain development induces widespread neuronal cell death, but there is little information on the role of astrocytes. Astrocytes can release neurotrophic growth factors such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which can exert the protective effect on neurons in paracrine fashion. We hypothesize that during propofol anesthesia, BDNF released from developing astrocytes may not be sufficient to prevent propofol-induced neurotoxicity.


Hippocampal astrocytes and neurons isolated from neonatal Sprague Dawley rats were exposed to propofol at a clinically relevant dose of 30 μM or dimethyl sulfoxide as control for 6 hours. Propofol-induced cell death was determined by propidium iodide (PI) staining in astrocyte-alone cultures, neuron-alone cultures, or cocultures containing either low or high density of astrocytes (1:9 or 1:1 ratio of astrocytes to neurons ratio [ANR], respectively). The astrocyte-conditioned medium was collected 12 hours after propofol exposure and measured by protein array assay. BDNF concentration in astrocyte-conditioned medium was quantified using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Neuron-alone cultures were treated with BDNF, tyrosine receptor kinase B inhibitor cyclotraxin-B, glycogen synthase kinase 3β (GSK3β) inhibitor CHIR99021, or mitochondrial fission inhibitor Mdivi-1 before propofol exposure. Western blot was performed for quantification of the level of protein kinase B and GSK3β. Mitochondrial shape was visualized through translocase of the outer membrane 20 staining.


Propofol increased cell death in neurons by 1.8-fold (% of PI-positive cells [PI%] = 18.6; 95% confidence interval [CI], 15.2-21.9, P < .05) but did not influence astrocyte viability. The neuronal death was attenuated by a high ANR (1:1 cocultures; fold change [FC] = 1.17, 95% CI, 0.96-1.38, P < .05), but not with a low ANR [1:9 cocultures; FC = 1.87, 95% CI, 1.48-2.26, P > .05]). Astrocytes secreted BDNF in a cell density-dependent way and propofol decreased BDNF secretion from astrocytes. Administration of BDNF, CHIR99021, or Mdivi-1 significantly attenuated the propofol-induced neuronal death and aberrant mitochondria in neuron-alone cultures (FC = 0.8, 95% CI, 0.62-0.98; FC = 1.22, 95% CI, 1.11-1.32; FC = 1.35, 95% CI, 1.16-1.54, respectively, P < .05) and the cocultures with a low ANR (1:9; FC = 0.85, 95% CI, 0.74-0.97; FC = 1.08, 95% CI, 0.84-1.32; FC = 1.25, 95% CI, 1.1-1.39, respectively, P < .05). Blocking BDNF receptor or protein kinase B activity abolished astrocyte-induced neuroprotection in the cocultures with a high ANR (1:1).


Astrocytes attenuate propofol-induced neurotoxicity through BDNF-mediated cell survival pathway suggesting multiple neuroprotective strategies such as administration of BDNF, astrocyte-conditioned medium, decreasing mitochondrial fission, or inhibition of GSK3β.

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