Levodopa induces apoptosis in cultured neuronal cells—A possible accelerator of nigrostriatal degeneration in Parkinson's disease?



Apoptosis is an active, intrinsic cell suicide program. We recently suggested that it may have a role in the death of nigrostriatal dopaminergic neurons in Parkinson's disease (PD). We now report that levodopa, the current major therapy for PD, is a potent inducer of apoptosis in cultured postmitotic chick sympathetic neurons. Levodopa, in a concentration range of 0.01–0.3 mM, caused the characteristic apoptotic cascade of cell shrinkage, massive membrane blebbing, and nuclear fragmentation, as evident by nuclear flow cytometry and fluorescence microscopy. Levodopa-induced apoptosis was inhibited by antioxidants, indicating that it may be mediated by autooxidation-reactive species. Levodopa treatment for PD may therefore constitute an additional challenge for the defective apoptosis-inhibiting systems in the nigrostriatal neurons. Despite reassuring data from some, but not all, previous studies, these findings suggest that the possible in vivo toxic effects of levodopa on the survival of the remaining nigral neurons should be further explored.