Stressed cells release ATP, which participates in neurodegenerative processes through the specific ligation of P2RX7 purinergic receptors. Here, we demonstrate that extracellular ATP and the more specific P2RX7 agonist, 2′- and 3′-O-(4-benzoylbenzoyl)-ATP, both induce photoreceptor cell death when added to primary retinal cell cultures or when injected into the eyes from wild-type mice, but not into the eyes from P2RX7-/- mice. Photoreceptor cell death was accompanied by the activation of caspase-8 and -9, translocation of apoptosis-inducing factor from mitochondria to nuclei, and TUNEL-detectable chromatin fragmentation. All hallmarks of photoreceptor apoptosis were prevented by premedication or co-application of Brilliant Blue G, a selective P2RX7 antagonist that is already approved for the staining of internal limiting membranes during ocular surgery. ATP release is up-regulated by nutrient starvation in primary retinal cell cultures and seems to be an initializing event that triggers primary and/or secondary cell death via the positive feedback loop on P2RX7. Our results encourage the potential application of Brilliant Blue G as a novel neuroprotective agent in retinal diseases or similar neurodegenerative pathologies linked to excessive extracellular ATP.
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