Quantification of sPLA2-induced early and late apoptosis changes in neuronal cell cultures using combined TUNEL and DAPI staining

Bron Daniel, Neuroscience Center, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, 2020 Gravier Street, Suite D, New Orleans, LA 70112, USA.
Mark A. DeCoster


The terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TdT) dUTP nick end labeling (TUNEL) stain is in wide use for measuring apoptosis in neurons, as well as in other cell types. TUNEL may give false positive results due to variations in labeling technique as well as staining of cells that have undergone non-apoptotic DNA strand breaks. Therefore, in isolation, TUNEL is not a certain indicator of apoptosis. Recently, we have demonstrated the potent apoptotic effect of secreted phospholipase A2 from group III (sPLA2-III) on primary cortical neurons from rat. Here we describe a computer-assisted method for quantifying TUNEL-positive neurons after sPLA2-III induced apoptosis. Extent of TUNEL is normalized to total nuclear content using 4',6-diamidino-2-phenylindole (DAPI) staining. Furthermore, DAPI counterstaining allows for determination of a nuclear morphology indicator, based on nuclear size and roundness, which we call the nuclear area factor. We found that the nuclear area factor is an early indicator of cell death (significant after 4 h post treatment), while TUNEL staining is significant at later times (26 h). Thus, the independent staining techniques using TUNEL and DAPI complement each other, and with commercially available image analysis software, may be used to indicate early as well as delayed cell injury processes.