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Prog Neurobiol. 2001 Jul;64(4):365-91.

Arginine metabolism and the synthesis of nitric oxide in the nervous system.

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Physiologisch-Chemisches Institut der Universität, Hoppe-Seyler-Strasse 4, D-72076, Tübingen, Germany.


The biochemistry and physiology of L-arginine have to be reconsidered in the light of the recent discovery that the amino acid is the only substrate of all isoforms of nitric oxide synthase (NOS). Generation of nitric oxide, NO, a versatile molecule in signaling processes and unspecific immune defense, is intertwined with synthesis, catabolism and transport of arginine which thus ultimately participates in the regulation of a fine-tuned balance between normal and pathophysiological consequences of NO production. The complex composition of the brain at the cellular level is reflected in a complex differential distribution of the enzymes of arginine metabolism. Argininosuccinate synthetase (ASS) and argininosuccinate lyase which together can recycle the NOS coproduct L-citrulline to L-arginine are expressed constitutively in neurons, but hardly colocalize with each other or with NOS in the same neuron. Therefore, trafficking of citrulline and arginine between neurons necessitates transport capacities in these cells which are fulfilled by well-described carriers for cationic and neutral amino acids. The mechanism of intercellular exchange of argininosuccinate, a prerequisite also for its proposed function as a neuromodulator, remains to be elucidated. In cultured astrocytes transcription and protein expression of arginine transport system y(+) and of ASS are upregulated concomittantly with immunostimulant-mediated induction of NOS-2. In vivo ASS-immunoreactivity was found in microglial cells in a rat model of brain inflammation and in neurons and glial cells in the brains of Alzheimer patients. Any attempt to estimate the contributions of arginine transport and synthesis to substrate supply for NOS has to consider competition for arginine between NOS and arginase, the latter enzyme being expressed as mitochondrial isoform II in nervous tissue. Generation of NOS inhibitors agmatine and methylarginines is documented for the nervous system. Suboptimal supply of NOS with arginine leads to production of detrimental peroxynitrite which may result in neuronal cell death. Data have been gathered recently which point to a particular role of astrocytes in neural arginine metabolism. Arginine appears to be accumulated in astroglial cells and can be released after stimulation with a variety of signals. It is proposed that an intercellular citrulline-NO cycle is operating in brain with astrocytes storing arginine for the benefit of neighbouring cells in need of the amino acid for a proper synthesis of NO.

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