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Török, N.;  Tanaka, M.;  Vécsei, L. Kynurenines in Neurodegenerative Diseases. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 13 June 2024).
Török N,  Tanaka M,  Vécsei L. Kynurenines in Neurodegenerative Diseases. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 13, 2024.
Török, Nóra, Masaru Tanaka, László Vécsei. "Kynurenines in Neurodegenerative Diseases" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 13, 2024).
Török, N.,  Tanaka, M., & Vécsei, L. (2022, October 24). Kynurenines in Neurodegenerative Diseases. In Encyclopedia.
Török, Nóra, et al. "Kynurenines in Neurodegenerative Diseases." Encyclopedia. Web. 24 October, 2022.
Kynurenines in Neurodegenerative Diseases

Neurodegenerative diseases are multifactorial, initiated by a series of the causative complex which develops into a certain clinical picture. The pathogenesis and disease course vary from patient to patient. Thus, it should be likewise to the treatment. Peripheral biomarkers are to play a central role for tailoring a personalized therapeutic plan for patients who suffered from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis, among others. Nevertheless, the use of biomarkers in clinical practice is still underappreciated and data presented in biomarker research for clinical use is still uncompelling, compared to the abundant data available for drug research and development. So is the case with kynurenines (KYNs) and the kynurenine pathway (KP) enzymes, which have been associated with a wide range of diseases including cancer, autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases, neurologic diseases, and psychiatric disorders. 

neurodegenerative disease Alzheimer’s disease Parkinson’s disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis Huntington’s disease multiple sclerosis stroke tryptophan kynurenine

1. Neurodegenerative Diseases

1.1. Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common chronic neurodegenerative disease with an insidious onset of progressive cognitive deteriorations, particularly memory impairment. Motor or sensory dysfunctions are not prominent in the early stage. Motor and autonomic dysfunctions are associated with the comorbidities such as Parkinson’s disease (PD) with dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, or vascular dementia [1]. Anxiety is common, besides apathy, depression, aggression, or sleep disorder [2]. Cortical atrophy of the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes, enlargement of the temporal horn of the lateral ventricle, and atrophy of the entorhinal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus are pathognomonic findings in patients with AD [3]. Abnormal deposit of insoluble proteinaceous material amyloid beta (Aβ) in the neuron and glial cells is mainly located in the atrophic lesions of AD patients [4]. Tau protein aggregates are associated with Aβ deposits, but it is considered secondary to amyloidosis [5]. Disturbance of calcium homeostasis was observed, and calcium-related proteins were proposed to be diagnostic and therapeutic biomarkers in AD [6].
The serum levels of TRP, KYNA, 3-HK, QUIN, and PIC were measured. The levels of 3-HK were significantly increased in the serum of patients with AD compared to those with major depression or with cognitive impairments. 3-HK is permeable to the BBB in contrast to a downstream metabolite QUIN and may be associated with higher levels of QUIN in the brain of AD patients [7]. An urgent need for biomarkers for the detection of the early stage AD was declared to expedite the early intervention by disease-modifying agents [7].
3-HK and other KP intermediates are possible candidates of early stage biomarkers [7]. The roles of the KP in the pathogenesis of AD were described [8][9][10][11][12]. QUIN was found localized with hyperphosphorylated tau in the cortical neurons of the brain of AD patients and to induce the phosphorylation of tau in human brains [9]. AD patients who have higher QUIN levels performed worse on the CAMCOG (the cognitive and self-contained part of the Cambridge Examination for Mental Disorders of the Elderly) test, suggesting the levels QUIN are associated with the cognitive impairment level [13] (Table 1). QUIN is a strong oxidant, and the presence of oxidative stress was reported in AD, involving mitochondria dysfunction, microRNA, and microRNA-gene interaction [14][15].
Table 1. Changes of metabolites of the kynurenine pathway in neurologic diseases. ↑: increase, ↓: decrease, *: tendency, not statistically significant.
Increased IDO-1 activity was associated with reduced cognitive performance, while IDO-1 inhibitor coptisine decreased the activation of microglia and astrocytes, prevented neuron loss, reduced Aβ plaque formation, and ameliorated impaired cognition in A b PP/PS1 mice [45][46]. KMO inhibitor JM6 prevented spatial memory deficits, anxiety related behavior, and synaptic loss in APP-Tg mice [43]. Furthermore, IDO is associated with the senile plaques [10]. Finally, the increased levels of KYNA were specific to cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in AD, compared to that of frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and ALS [32] (Table 2).
Table 2. Changes of metabolites of the kynurenine pathway in neurologic diseases. ↑: increase, ↓: decrease.

1.2. Parkinson’s Disease

PD is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that predominantly affects motor functions including muscle rigidity, tremors, and changes in speech and gait. Main motor dysfunctions are bradykinesia, resting tremors, and rigidity which are largely due to the dopaminergic nigrostriatal denervation in the early stages of PD. However, psychobehavioral symptoms including psychosis, hallucinations, depression, and anxiety are not rare, which are present before the motor complaints [50][52]. Neurodegeneration and gliosis of the pars compacta of the substantia nigra (SNpc) and the presence of Lewy bodies (LBs) in pigment nuclei are pathognomonic of PD [53]. LBs contain the abnormal aggregates of misfolded alpha-synuclein (α-syn). Accumulation of aggregated α-syn in oligodendrocytes forms glial cytoplasmic inclusions. The mechanisms that govern α-syn fibrillization and LB formation in the brain remain poorly understood [54].
Alterations of TRP metabolism, glutamate excitotoxicity, and the gut-brain-axis have been shown associated with the pathogenesis of PD [55][56]. The identification of a risk marker is of particular interest because most of the dopaminergic neuros in the SNpc is not functioning at the time of the diagnosis [57]. KYNA levels and KYNA/KYN ratios were found significantly lower, while the levels of QUIN and ratios of QUIN/KYNA were observed significantly higher in the plasma of PD patients compared to healthy controls [23][58]. Those patients who were in advanced stage, Hoehn-Yahr stage more than 2, showed lower levels of KYNA and ratios of KYNA/KYN, while higher levels of QUIN and ratios of QUIN/KYNA compared to PD patients in early stage, Hoehn-Yahr stage ≤2 and healthy controls [58]. Moreover, receiver operating characteristic curve analysis suggested a QUIN/KYNA ratio as a potential biomarker for PD with good sensitivity and specificity. Stratified analysis showed that changes of the KYN pathway metabolites were more characteristic in PD patients in advanced stage [58]. Altered KYN metabolism and KYNA levels were reported in the brain samples of PD patients. The levels of KYNA were lower in the frontal cortex, putamen, and SNpc, while the levels of 3-HK were higher in the putamen, frontal cortex, SNpc, and CSF of PD patients [23][29]. The elevated 3-HK levels in CSF evidenced a possible excitotoxic disease mechanism in PD and 3-HK as a potential predictive biomarker [23] (Table 1).
Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) of IDO-1 rs7820268 and rs9657182 were found associated with the late onset of PD [59]. The activities of KAT II and levels of KYNA were increased in the red blood cells; however, the activities of KAT I and KAT II were lower and the levels of KYNA tended to be lower in the plasma of PD patients [41] (Table 2). A systematic review reported the increased levels of neurotoxic KYNs and the decreased levels of neuroprotective KYNs in general, suggesting a significant shift toward the production of QUIN in the KP in PD [1]. Alteration of the KP is a distinguished characteristic in PD and may contribute to the pathogenesis of PD. Highly active retrotranposition competent LINE-1s was linked to the risk and progression of PD. making it a possible risk and therapeutic biomarkers [60]. Thus, the identification of PD-specific biomarkers in the blood, CSF, stool, or urine sample may make it possible to reveal the pathogenesis, make an early stage diagnosis, observe the disease progression, and monitor therapeutic effects.

1.3. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a group of progressive neurodegenerative disease which mainly affects neurons controlling voluntary muscles. ALS often presents fasciculation, myasthenia, or dysarthria initially. It involves the muscles responsible to move, speak, eat, and breathe in later stage [61]. ALS patients present a wide range of mild symptoms including autonomic, GI, cardiovascular, and neuropsychiatric manifestations including depression and anxiety [62][63][64]. The most common genetic mutations are the GGGGCC expansion in C9ORF72, present in approximately 30–47% of familial ALS cases and the SOD 1 mutations [65][66]. This hexanucleotide expansion is most often accompanied with the presence of cytoplasmic inclusions containing transactive response DNA-binding protein of 43 kDa (TDP-43) [67]. TDP-43 proteinopathy is characteristic to ALS [65]. TDP-43 is found in the lower motor neurons in the spinal cord and brainstem and the upper motor neurons in the motor cortex. In the late stage of ALS and ALS patients with dementia, TDP-43 can be found in the hippocampus, amygdala, and cortex [4]. New mutations were found in the genes of chromosome 9 open reading frame 72 (C9orf72), SOD 1, and senataxin in Hungarian ALS patients [68][69]. SNP of the vitamin D receptor gene rs7975232 (ApaI) was found associated with ALS [70]. Besides genetic predisposition, the pathogenesis of ALS is associated with ROS, mitochondrial dysfunction, intracellular calcium aggregation, and protein aggregation, glutamate excitotoxicity, and autoimmune inflammatory process [70][71][72][73].
The levels of KYNA was observed higher in the brain of patients with bulbar onset of ALS, compared to healthy control or patients with limb onset [36]. Moreover, the levels of KYNA were higher in CSF of patients with severe clinical status, compared to healthy controls [36]. Meanwhile lower levels of KYNA were detected in the serum of patients with severe clinical status, compared to healthy controls and patients with mild clinical status [36] (Table 1). Therefore, the serum level of KYNA possibly indicates the severity of the disease and can be a potential prognostic biomarker. The neuronal and microglial expression of IDO were elevated and the levels of QUIN were higher in the motor cortex and spinal cord of ALS patients [36] (Table 2). The levels of TRP, KYN, and QUIN were elevated in CSF of ALS patients [36]. The levels of TRP, KYN, and QUIN were elevated, and the level of PIC was decreased in the serum of ALS patients [36]. Furthermore, the ratios of 3-HK/XA were decreased in the serum of ALS patients compared to patients with FTD [17] (Table 1). The median survivaltime ranges from 20 to 48 months, but only 10–20% of ALS patients survive longer than ten years with worse prognosis in older age and bulbar onset. There is no option for the treatment of ALS. Thus, a search for predictive and therapeutic biomarkers are of particular interest.

1.4. Huntington’s Disease

Huntington’s disease (HD) is an autosomal-dominant neurodegenerative disease with progressive and irreversible motor dysfunctions, leading to coordination problem, gait difficulties, cognitive dysfunction, and behavioral changes. Mild autonomic symptoms including orthostatic hypotension, excessive perspiration, and tachycardia are present in mild HD, while vegetative symptoms are prominent in the advanced stages [71]. Pathological findings in HD are degeneration and neural loss of the striatum, especially the caudate nuclei which innervate the cerebral cortex, pallidum, thalamus, brainstem, and cerebellum. The pathological changes correlate with disability. In the cerebellum, thalamus, and brain stem, abundant ballooned neurons were observed. Abnormal huntingtin proteins are associated with ballooning cell death which ruptures the membrane to swell like a balloon [71].
The activation of the neurotoxic branch of the KP is verified in the CNS. The levels of 3-HK and QUIN were elevated and the activity of 3-HAO was increased in the striatum where the loss of the nerve cell is the most prominent [24][50]. The levels of KYNA and the activity of KAT were decreased in the brain [37]. Toxoplasma gondii infection elevated the IDO activity in the brain and resulted significantly earlier death of the transgenic mouse model of HD compared to the HD mice without infection and the wild type, suggesting that the IDO activation accelerated the disease progression [72]. Lower TRP, higher KYN levels, and higher KYN/TRP ratios were observed in the serum of HD patients, suggesting the presence of higher IDO activity [18]. The levels of KYNA, the activity of KAT, and the levels of 3-HK and 3-HAA were all decreased in plasma [36]. The inflammatory status was well correlated with the levels of AA and the levels of TRP were negatively correlated with the severity of symptoms and the number of CAG repeats [19]. AA levels may be a good biomarker to indicate the inflammatory status in HD (Table 1).

1.5. Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune demyelinating neurodegenerative disease. Common symptoms of MS range widely from motor dysfunction, autonomic symptoms to psychobehavioral manifestations including gait difficulties, paresthesia, vision problems, vertigo, incontinence, sexual problems, pain, cognitive dysfunctions, emotional changes, and depression [73]. Numerous glial scars, called plaques which develop in the white matter and spinal cord are pathognomonic to MS [74].
Disturbance of the KP and altered levels of KYN metabolites in MS patients were reported previously [25][40][75][76]. The levels of TRP were significantly lower in the serum and CSF samples of MS patients, suggesting the activation of the KP metabolism [20].The lower TRP level may be used as a potential biomarker in the screening of MS [19][21]. Proinflammatory cytokines including IFNs and TNF-α activated IDO-1 expression, resulting in the activation of the KP [77]. However, IDO-1 inhibition upon the disease induction significantly exacerbated the disease severity in the experimental autoimmune encephalitis (EAE) model of MS in mouse [78]. It was probably caused by the increased pool of available TRP which facilitated T cell proliferation. The activation and expression of IDO may become a useful biomarker to monitor the clinical course of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS) and a predictive biomarker for the development of flares of MS. Moreover, therapeutic modulation of IDO activity may be beneficial in MS [40]. An imbalance of neurotoxic and neuroprotective KYN metabolites was considered involved in the pathogenesis of MS [25][41][79]. The activities of KAT I and KAT II enzymes were significantly higher in the red blood cells of MS patients compared to healthy control and the higher KAT activities were correlated with increased KYNA levels in the plasma of MS patients, suggesting the possible induction of neuroprotection against excitoneurotoxicity [44][47]. Furthermore, the levels of KYNA were increased in the CSF of MS patients during acute phase, while the KYNA levels were decreased in the inactive chronic phase of MS [25][26]. Monitoring the redox status including proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids together with the KP components was proposed to build a personalized treatment plan for MS patients [80] (Table 1).
The activity and expression of KMO and the level of 3-HK were increased and KMO inhibitor Ro61- 8048 decreased the QUIN concentration in the spinal cord of EAE model of MS in rats [41]. A Ro61- 8048 prodrug KM6 significantly increased KYNA levels in mouse models of HD and AD [43]. The activity of KMO may be responsible for deviating from the KYNA branch towards the production of downstream neurotoxic metabolites. The activation of IDO-1 inhibits T cell activation, which appears beneficial to MS, but it can lead to the increased production of neurotoxic KYNs, eventually contributing to the progression of MS [43][81]. The KP metabolites were proposed to be potential prognostic and predictive biomarkers for MS. The levels KYNA and PIC were increased in RRMS, but not in secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS) or primary progressive (PPMS) and the levels of 3-HK and QUIN were increased in both SPMS and PPMS [69]. The QUIN/KYNA ratios were moderately correlated with the severity of MS [75] (Table 1). Alteration of TRP metabolism is more relevant to the pathogenesis of MS than inflammation and a profile of the serum KP metabolites may be a suitable predictive biomarker for MS. Especially, the QUIN/KYNA ratio may become a useful predictive biomarker for neurodegeneration [75]. In general, the levels of KP metabolites can be suitable biomarkers for diagnosis of MS subtypes, monitoring the severity, and/or identifying therapeutic targets.

2. Other Relevant Diseases

Potential use of KYNs as biomarkers are under extensive research not only for neurologic diseases, but also psychiatric disorders. KYN and KYNA were found to be predictive biomarkers for the treatment of escitalopram in depression. KYNA is both a diagnostic and a predictive biomarker for depression as well [82]. 3-HK and KYNA were proposed to be prognostic biomarkers of depression and disability in poststroke patients [83]. Other KP metabolites such as XA and CA were rarely documented. An extremely low concentration of CA was reported to have anti-psychotic activities in mice and the levels of CA was reduced in the prefrontal cortex in patients with schizophrenia [84]. The glutamatergic nervous system was proposed to be a therapeutic biomarker for mood disorders including depression [85]. Furthermore, a simultaneous intervention in the NMDA receptor and α7nAchR was suggested by novel combination for the treatment of schizophrenia [86]. Longitudinal plasma samples were studied in search of a certain plasma protein profiles as a predictive biomarker for the treatment of depression [87]. Therapeutic biomarkers are under rigorous search for depression, anxiety, and dementia through endogenous neuropeptides, agonists, and their synthetic analogues [88][89][90][91]. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids which bind G protein-coupled receptor GPR120 in the GPR120 signaling pathway was proposed to be a therapeutic biomarker for the treatment of schizophrenia [92]. The treatment of metabolic dysfunction by nutraceuticals in ageing and neurodegenerative diseases was proposed [93]. Biomarkers are not only limited to molecules, but can also be any measurable indicators for risk, diagnosis, prognosis, disease course, and therapeutic targets. Depression was reported a risk factor for AD and dementia, and dyslipidemia treatment reduced this risk in patients with diabetes mellitus. Thus, depression is a risk biomarker and preventable in patients with dyslipidemia [94]. The presence of depression after acute stroke and transient ischemic attack increased mortality and disability within 12 months, suggesting depression as a prognostic biomarker in cerebral ischemia [95]. Depression and anxiety can be treatable by psychedelic psilocybin in patients with terminal illness [96]. Interestingly, depression is a single psychobehavioral component of dementia, which can be ameliorated by animal-assisted and pet-robot interventions in dementia patients [97]. Depression is indeed a therapeutic biomarker.


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