Propofol is a commonly used general anesthetic that may cause neuronal damage, especially in infants and young children. Mitochondria play an essential role in cellular metabolism and signal transduction. Propofol may cause neurotoxicity by inhibiting mitochondrial function, but the mechanism by this which occurs remains unclear.


First, the primary rat hippocampal neurons were cultured for 7 days in vitro. The neurons were incubated with propofol at different times or different concentrations, and then the adenosine triphosphate (ATP), reactive oxygen species (ROS), mitochondrial membrane potential, and apoptosis-related proteins were analyzed. Based on the results of the 1st phase, the neurons were then incubated with propofol (100 µM) or corresponding reagents, including 5-aminoimidazole-4-carboxamide ribonucleotide, tenovin-1, and pifithrin-α. Subsequently, the ATP, ROS, mitochondrial membrane potential, phospho-adenosine 5′-monophosphate-activated protein kinase (p-AMPK), protein 53 (p53), and related apoptosis proteins were analyzed.


Higher propofol concentrations or longer incubation times were associated with more pronounced decreases in ATP, B-cell lymphoma 2 (Bcl-2), and mitochondrial membrane potential, and more pronounced increases in ROS, BCL2-associated X (Bax), Cytochrome C (CytC), and cleaved caspase-9. Additionally, after incubation with propofol (100 µM), neuronal Bcl-2, p-AMPK, ATP, and mitochondrial membrane potential were downregulated, and ROS, p53, CytC, Bax, cleaved caspase-3, and cleaved caspase-9 were upregulated. AMPK activators or p53 inhibitors reversed the above-mentioned changes.


Propofol (100 µM)-induced mitochondrial damage in fetal rat hippocampal neurons may be mediated by the AMPK/p53 signaling pathway. Propofol (100 µM) was shown to inhibit the activity of AMPK in neurons, upregulate the expression of p53, and then activate the mitochondrial-dependent apoptosis pathway, which may lead to neuronal apoptosis.

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Fei Xiao et al.
Annals of Translational Medicine October 2022