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Eur J Pharmacol. 2006 Sep 1;545(1):2-10. Epub 2006 Jun 15.

New targets for pharmacological intervention in the glutamatergic synapse.

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  • 1Center of Excellence on Neurodegenerative Diseases and Department of Pharmacological Sciences, University of Milano, via Balzaretti 9, 20133 Milano, Italy.


Excitotoxicity is thought to be a major mechanism in many human disease states such as ischemia, trauma, epilepsy and chronic neurodegenerative disorders. Briefly, synaptic overactivity leads to the excessive release of glutamate that activates postsynaptic cell membrane receptors, which upon activation open their associated ion channel pore to produce ion influx. To date, although molecular basis of glutamate toxicity remain uncertain, there is general agreement that N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) subtype of ionotropic glutamate receptors plays a key role in mediating at least some aspects of glutamate neurotoxicity. On this view, research has focused in the discovery of new compounds able to either reduce glutamate release or activation of postsynaptic NMDA receptors. Although NMDA receptor antagonists prevent excitotoxicity in cellular and animal models, these drugs have limited usefulness clinically. Side effects such as psychosis, nausea, vomiting, memory impairment, and neuronal cell death accompany complete NMDA receptor blockade, dramatizing the crucial role of the NMDA receptor in normal neuronal processes. Recently, however, well-tolerated compounds such as memantine has been shown to be able to block excitotoxic cell death in a clinically tolerated manner. Understanding the biochemical properties of the multitude of NMDA receptor subtypes offers the possibility of developing more effective and clinically useful drugs. The increasing knowledge of the structure and function of this postsynaptic NMDA complex may improve the identification of specific molecular targets whose pharmacological or genetic manipulation might lead to innovative therapies for brain disorders.

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