Neuronal pigmented autophagic vacuoles: lipofuscin, neuromelanin, and ceroid as macroautophagic responses during aging and disease


Address correspondence and reprint requests to David Sulzer, Departments of Neurology & Psychiatry, Columbia University; Division of Molecular Therapeutics, New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York, NY 10036, USA. E-mail:


The most striking morphologic change in neurons during normal aging is the accumulation of autophagic vacuoles filled with lipofuscin or neuromelanin pigments. These organelles are similar to those containing the ceroid pigments associated with neurologic disorders, particularly in diseases caused by lysosomal dysfunction. The pigments arise from incompletely degraded proteins and lipids principally derived from the breakdown of mitochondria or products of oxidized catecholamines. Pigmented autophagic vacuoles may eventually occupy a major portion of the neuronal cell body volume because of resistance of the pigments to lysosomal degradation and/or inadequate fusion of the vacuoles with lysosomes. Although the formation of autophagic vacuoles via macroautophagy protects the neuron from cellular stress, accumulation of pigmented autophagic vacuoles may eventually interfere with normal degradative pathways and endocytic/secretory tasks such as appropriate response to growth factors.