We recently found that tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) may be involved in neuronal cell death induced by methylmercury in the mouse brain. Here, we examined the cells involved in the induction of TNF-α expression by methylmercury in the mouse brain by in situ hybridization. TNF-α-expressing cells were found throughout the brain and were identified as microglia by immunostaining for ionized calcium binding adaptor molecule 1 (Iba1). Methylmercury induced TNF-α expression in mouse primary microglia and mouse microglial cell line BV2. Knockdown of apoptosis signal-regulating kinase 1 (ASK1), an inflammatory cytokine up-regulator that is responsible for reactive oxygen species (ROS), decreased methylmercury-induced TNF-α expression through decreased phosphorylation of p38 MAP kinase in BV2 cells. Suppression of methylmercury-induced reactive oxygen species (ROS) by antioxidant treatment largely abolished the induction of TNF-α expression and phosphorylation of p38 by methylmercury in BV2 cells. Finally, in mouse brain slices, the TNF-α antagonist (WP9QY) inhibited neuronal cell death induced by methylmercury, as did the p38 inhibitor SB203580 and liposomal clodronate (a microglia-depleting agent). These results indicate that methylmercury induces mitochondrial ROS that are involved in activation of the ASK1/p38 pathway in microglia and that this is associated with induction of TNF-α expression and neuronal cell death.
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