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J Anat. 2007 Jun;210(6):693-702. Epub 2007 May 15.

Excitotoxic damage to white matter.

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  • 1Departamento de Neurociencias, Universidad del País Vasco, Leioa, and Neurotek-UPV/EHU, Parque Tecnológico deBizkaia, Zamudio, Spain. carlos.,


Glutamate kills neurons by excitotoxicity, which is caused by sustained activation of glutamate receptors. In recent years, it has been shown that glutamate can also be toxic to white matter oligodendrocytes and to myelin by this mechanism. In particular, glutamate receptor-mediated injury to these cells can be triggered by activation of alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid, kainate and N-methyl-D-aspartate glutamate receptor types. Thus, these receptor classes, and the intermediaries of the signal cascades they activate, are potential targets for drug development to treat white matter damage in acute and chronic diseases. In addition, alterations of glutamate homeostasis in white matter can determine glutamate injury to oligodendrocytes and myelin. Astrocytes are responsible for most glutamate uptake in synaptic and non-synaptic areas and consequently are the major regulators of glutamate homeostasis. Activated microglia in turn may secrete cytokines and generate radical oxygen species, which impair glutamate uptake and reduce the expression of glutamate transporters. Finally, oligodendrocytes also contribute to glutamate homeostasis. This review aims at summarizing the current knowledge about the mechanisms leading to oligodendrocyte cell death and demyelination as a consequence of alterations in glutamate signalling, and their clinical relevance to disease. In addition, we show evidence that oligodendrocytes can also be killed by ATP acting at P2X receptors. A thorough understanding of how oligodendrocytes and myelin are damaged by excitotoxicity will generate knowledge that can lead to improved therapeutic strategies to protect white matter.

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