Gold nanoparticles (Au-NPs) are being increasingly used as constituents in cosmetics, biosensors, bioimaging, photothermal therapy, and targeted drug delivery. This elevated exposure to Au-NPs poses systemic risks in humans, particularly risks associated with the biodistribution of Au-NPs and their potent interaction with biological barriers. We treated human umbilical vein endothelial cells with Au-NPs and comprehensively examined the expression levels of tight junction (TJ) proteins such as occludin, claudin-5, junctional adhesion molecules, and zonula occludens-1 (ZO-1), as well as endothelial paracellular permeability and the intracellular signaling required for TJ organization. Moreover, we validated the effects of Au-NPs on the integrity of TJs in mouse brain microvascular endothelial cells in vitro and obtained direct evidence of their influence on blood-brain barrier (BBB) permeability in vivo. Treatment with Au-NPs caused a pronounced reduction of PKζ-dependent threonine phosphorylation of occludin and ZO-1, which resulted in the instability of endothelial TJs and led to proteasome-mediated degradation of TJ components. This impairment in the assembly of TJs between endothelial cells increased the permeability of the transendothelial paracellular passage and the BBB. Au-NPs increased endothelial paracellular permeability in vitro and elevated BBB permeability in vivo. Future studies must investigate the direct and indirect toxicity caused by Au-NP-induced endothelial TJ opening and thereby address the double-edged-sword effect of Au-NPs.
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