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Bilirubin Toxicity and Differentiation of Cultured Astrocytes



To study the toxicity of bilirubin in primary cultures of newborn rat cerebral cortical astrocytes.


Primary cultures of newborn rat astrocytes were incubated at bilirubin concentrations of 0, 1, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, and 2000 μM, at a bilirubin:albumin molar ratio of 1.7. Bilirubin toxicity was determined by changes in cellular morphology, trypan blue staining, and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) release into the culture medium at various times of incubation. To determine if differentiation of astrocytes affects bilirubin toxicity, cultures were treated with dibutyryl cyclic adenosine monophosphate.


All three indices of toxicity showed a bilirubin concentration dependence. LDH release in experimental cultures was significantly elevated (p < 0.05) above that of control cultures by 24 hours at bilirubin concentrations of ≥100 μM. The absolute amount of LDH release differed significantly between the 200 and 2000 μM cultures from 1.5 to 24 hours, after which duration of exposure appeared to take over and all cultures approached maximum. LDH release for the lower concentrations all reached maximum by 120 hours, except for the 1 μM cultures, which showed no significant elevation above control throughout the study period. At 100 and 200 μM bilirubin, LDH release by untreated cells was significantly higher (p < 0.05) than release by treated cells by 36 hours.


Undifferentiated astrocytes appeared to be more sensitive to bilirubin toxicity, which may correlate with the greater susceptibility of newborns to kernicteric injury. Studies with primary astrocyte culture may provide insight into how bilirubin sensitivity changes with brain development as well as the cellular and biochemical mechanisms of bilirubin encephalopathy.

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This work was supported by NIH Grant K08HD00891, as well as the Mary L.Johnson Research Fund, the Hess Research Fund and the BallingerResearch Fund.

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Rhine, W., Schmitter, S., Yu, A. et al. Bilirubin Toxicity and Differentiation of Cultured Astrocytes. J Perinatol 19, 206–211 (1999).

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