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J Neurosci. 2012 May 9;32(19):6732-42. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.6371-11.2012.

Synaptic NMDA receptors mediate hypoxic excitotoxic death.

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Department of Psychiatry, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO 63110, USA.


Excessive NMDA receptor activation and excitotoxicity underlies pathology in many neuropsychiatric and neurological disorders, including hypoxia/ischemia. Thus, the development of effective therapeutics for these disorders demands a complete understanding of NMDA receptor (NMDAR) activation during excitotoxic insults. The extrasynaptic NMDAR hypothesis posits that synaptic NMDARs are neurotrophic/neuroprotective and extrasynaptic NMDARs are neurotoxic. The extrasynaptic hypothesis is built in part on observed selectivity for extrasynaptic receptors of a neuroprotective use-dependent NMDAR channel blocker, memantine. In rat hippocampal neurons, we found that a neuroprotective concentration of memantine shows little selectivity for extrasynaptic NMDARs when all receptors are tonically activated by exogenous glutamate. This led us to test the extrasynaptic NMDAR hypothesis using metabolic challenge, where the source of excitotoxic glutamate buildup may be largely synaptic. Three independent approaches suggest strongly that synaptic receptors participate prominently in hypoxic excitotoxicity. First, block of glutamate transporters with a nonsubstrate antagonist exacerbated rather than prevented damage, consistent with a primarily synaptic source of glutamate. Second, selective, preblock of synaptic NMDARs with a slowly reversible, use-dependent antagonist protected nearly fully against prolonged hypoxic insult. Third, glutamate pyruvate transaminase, which degrades ambient but not synaptic glutamate, did not protect against hypoxia but protected against exogenous glutamate damage. Together, these results suggest that synaptic NMDARs can mediate excitotoxicity, particularly when the glutamate source is synaptic and when synaptic receptor contributions are rigorously defined. Moreover, the results suggest that in some situations therapeutically targeting extrasynaptic receptors may be inappropriate.

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