Roles of Mitochondria in Health and Disease

  1. Michael R. Duchen
  1. From the Department of Physiology, University College London, London, U.K
  1. Address correspondence and reprint requests to Michael R. Duchen, Mitochondrial Biology Group, Department of Physiology, University College London, Gower St., London WC1E 6BT. E-mail: m.duchen{at}


Mitochondria play a central role in cell life and cell death. An increasing number of studies place mitochondrial dysfunction at the heart of disease, most notably in the heart and the central nervous system. In this article, I review some of the key features of mitochondrial biology and focus on the pathways of mitochondrial calcium accumulation. Substantial evidence now suggests that the accumulation of calcium into mitochondria may play a key role as a trigger to mitochondrial pathology, especially when that calcium uptake is accompanied by another stressor, in particular nitrosative or oxidative stress. The major process involved is the opening of the mitochondrial permeability transition pore, a large conductance pore that causes a collapse of the mitochondrial membrane potential, leading to ATP depletion and necrotic cell death or to cytochrome c release and apoptosis, depending on the rate of ATP consumption. I discuss two models in particular in which these processes have been characterized. The first is a model of oxidative stress in cardiomyocytes, in which reperfusion after ischemia causes mitochondrial calcium overload, and oxidative stress. Recent experiments suggest that cardioprotection by hypoxic preconditioning or exposure to the ATP-dependent K+ channel opener diazoxide increases mitochondrial resistance to oxidative injury. In a second model, of calcium overload in neurons, the neurotoxicity of glutamate depends on mitochondrial calcium uptake, but the toxicity to mitochondria also requires the generation of nitric oxide. Glutamate toxicity after activation of N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptors results from the colocalization of NMDA receptors with neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS). The calcium increase mediated by NMDA receptor activation is thus associated with nitric oxide generation, and the combination leads to the collapse of mitochondrial membrane potential followed by cell death.


  • This article is based on a presentation at a symposium. The symposium and the publication of this article were made possible by an unrestricted educational grant from Les Laboratoires Servier.

    • Accepted May 30, 2003.
    • Received March 18, 2003.
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