All drugs that can penetrate the blood-brain barrier (BBB) may lead to mental state changes, including the widely used anti-infective drug sulfamethoxazole (SMZ). Herein, we investigated whether lycopene (LYC) could ameliorate SMZ-induced brain injury and the postulated mechanisms involved. A total of 120 grass carps were exposed under SMZ (0.3 μg/L, waterborne) or LYC (10 mg/kg fish weight, diet) or their combination for 30 days. Firstly, brain injury induced by SMZ exposure was suggested by the damage of BBB (decreases of Claudins, Occludin and Zonula Occludens), and the decrease of neurotransmitter activity (AChE). Through inducing oxidative stress (elevations of malondialdehyde and 8-hydroxy-2 deoxyguanosine, inhibition of glutathione), SMZ increased the intra-nuclear level of NF-κB and its target genes (TNF-α and interleukins), creating an inflammatory microenvironment. As a positive feed-back mechanism, apoptosis begins with activation of pro-death proteins (Bax/Bcl-2) and activation of caspases (caspase-9 and caspase-3). Meanwhile, a compensatory upregulation of constitutive Nrf2 and its downstream antioxidative gene expression (NAD(P)H Quinone Dehydrogenase 1 and Heme oxygenase 1) and accelerated autophagy (increases of autophagy-related genes and p62 inhibition) were activated as a defense mechanism. Intriguingly, under SMZ stress, LYC co-administration decreased NF-κB/apoptosis cascades and restored Nrf2/autophagy levels. The neuroprotective roles of LYC make this natural compound a valuable agent for prevention SMZ stress in environment. This study suggests that LYC might be developed as a potential candidate for alleviating environmental SMZ stress in aquaculture.
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