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Pharmacol Ther. 2005 Sep;107(3):271-85. Epub 2005 Apr 14.

The excitatory amino acid transporters: pharmacological insights on substrate and inhibitor specificity of the EAAT subtypes.

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  • 1Center for Structural and Functional Neuroscience, Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Science, The University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812, USA.


L-glutamate serves as the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the mammalian CNS, where it can contribute to either neuronal communication or neuropathological damage through the activation of a wide variety of excitatory amino acid (EAA) receptors. By regulating the levels of extracellular L-glutamate that have access to these receptors, glutamate uptake systems hold the potential to effect both normal synaptic signaling and the abnormal over-activation of the receptors that can trigger excitotoxic pathology. Among the various membrane transporters that are capable of translocating this dicarboxylic amino acid, the majority of glutamate transport in the CNS, particularly as related to excitatory transmission, is mediated by the high-affinity, sodium-dependent, excitatory amino acid transporters (EAATs). At least 5 subtypes of EAATs have been identified, each of which exhibits a distinct distribution and pharmacology. Our growing appreciation for the functional significance of the EAATs is closely linked to our understanding of their pharmacology and the consequent development of inhibitors and substrates with which to delineate their activity. As was the case with EAA receptors, conformationally constrained glutamate mimics have been especially valuable in this effort. The success of these compounds is based upon the concept that restricting the spatial positions that can be occupied by required functional groups can serve to enhance both the potency and selectivity of the analogues. In the instance of the transporters, useful pharmacological probes have emerged through the introduction of additional functional groups (e.g., methyl, hydroxyl, benzyloxy) onto the acyclic backbone of glutamate and aspartate, as well as through the exploitation of novel ring systems (e.g., pyrrolidine-, cyclopropyl-, azole-, oxazole-, and oxazoline-based analogues) to conformationally lock the position of the amino and carboxyl groups. The focus of the present review is on the pharmacology of the EAATs and, in particular, the potential to identify those chemical properties that differentiate the processes of binding and translocation (i.e., substrates from non-substrate inhibitors), as well as strategies to develop glutamate analogues that act selectively among the various EAAT subtypes.

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