Autophagy is an intracellular degradation pathway essential for cellular and energy homoeostasis. It functions in the clearance of misfolded proteins and damaged organelles, as well as recycling of cytosolic components during starvation to compensate for nutrient deprivation. This process is regulated by mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin)-dependent and mTOR-independent pathways that are amenable to chemical perturbations. Several small molecules modulating autophagy have been identified that have potential therapeutic application in diverse human diseases, including neurodegeneration. Neurodegeneration-associated aggregation-prone proteins are predominantly degraded by autophagy and therefore stimulating this process with chemical inducers is beneficial in a wide range of transgenic disease models. Emerging evidence indicates that compromised autophagy contributes to the aetiology of various neurodegenerative diseases related to protein conformational disorders by causing the accumulation of mutant proteins and cellular toxicity. Combining the knowledge of autophagy dysfunction and the mechanism of drug action may thus be rational for designing targeted therapy. The present review describes the cellular signalling pathways regulating mammalian autophagy and highlights the potential therapeutic application of autophagy inducers in neurodegenerative disorders.

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