Defining external factors that determine neuronal survival, apoptosis and necrosis during excitotoxic injury using a high content screening imaging platform.
Cell death induced by excessive glutamate receptor overactivation, excitotoxicity, has been implicated in several acute and chronic neurological disorders. While numerous studies have demonstrated the contribution of biochemically and genetically activated cell death pathways in excitotoxic injury, the factors mediating passive, excitotoxic necrosis are less thoroughly investigated. To address this question, we developed a high content screening (HCS) based assay to collect high volumes of quantitative cellular imaging data and elucidated the effects of intrinsic and external factors on excitotoxic necrosis and apoptosis. The analysis workflow consisted of robust nuclei segmentation, tracking and a classification algorithm, which enabled automated analysis of large amounts of data to identify and quantify viable, apoptotic and necrotic neuronal populations. We show that mouse cerebellar granule neurons plated at low or high density underwent significantly increased necrosis compared to neurons seeded at medium density. Increased extracellular Ca2+ sensitized neurons to glutamate-induced excitotoxicity, but surprisingly potentiated cell death mainly through apoptosis. We also demonstrate that inhibition of various cell death signaling pathways (including inhibition of calpain, PARP and AMPK activation) primarily reduced excitotoxic apoptosis. Excitotoxic necrosis instead increased with low extracellular glucose availability. Our study is the first of its kind to establish and implement a HCS based assay to investigate the contribution of external and intrinsic factors to excitotoxic apoptosis and necrosis.