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Neurochem Int. 2002 Aug-Sep;41(2-3):123-42.

Glutamine synthetase in brain: effect of ammonia.

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  • 1Departamento de Biología Celular y Genética, Facultad de Biología, Universidad de Alcalá, 28871, Madrid, Spain.


Glutamine synthetase (GS) in brain is located mainly in astrocytes. One of the primary roles of astrocytes is to protect neurons against excitotoxicity by taking up excess ammonia and glutamate and converting it into glutamine via the enzyme GS. Changes in GS expression may reflect changes in astroglial function, which can affect neuronal functions. Hyperammonemia is an important factor responsible of hepatic encephalopathy (HE) and causes astroglial swelling. Hyperammonemia can be experimentally induced and an adaptive astroglial response to high levels of ammonia and glutamate seems to occur in long-term studies. In hyperammonemic states, astroglial cells can experience morphological changes that may alter different astrocyte functions, such as protein synthesis or neurotransmitters uptake. One of the observed changes is the increase in the GS expression in astrocytes located in glutamatergic areas. The induction of GS expression in these specific areas would balance the increased ammonia and glutamate uptake and protect against neuronal degeneration, whereas, decrease of GS expression in non-glutamatergic areas could disrupt the neuron-glial metabolic interactions as a consequence of hyperammonemia. Induction of GS has been described in astrocytes in response to the action of glutamate on active glutamate receptors. The over-stimulation of glutamate receptors may also favour nitric oxide (NO) formation by activation of NO synthase (NOS), and NO has been implicated in the pathogenesis of several CNS diseases. Hyperammonemia could induce the formation of inducible NOS in astroglial cells, with the consequent NO formation, deactivation of GS and dawn-regulation of glutamate uptake. However, in glutamatergic areas, the distribution of both glial glutamate receptors and glial glutamate transporters parallels the GS location, suggesting a functional coupling between glutamate uptake and degradation by glutamate transporters and GS to attenuate brain injury in these areas. In hyperammonemia, the astroglial cells located in proximity to blood-vessels in glutamatergic areas show increased GS protein content in their perivascular processes. Since ammonia freely crosses the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and astrocytes are responsible for maintaining the BBB, the presence of GS in the perivascular processes could produce a rapid glutamine synthesis to be released into blood. It could, therefore, prevent the entry of high amounts of ammonia from circulation to attenuate neurotoxicity. The changes in the distribution of this critical enzyme suggests that the glutamate-glutamine cycle may be differentially impaired in hyperammonemic states.

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