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J Neurol. 1997 May;244 Suppl 2:S3-14.

Glutamate, excitotoxicity and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

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University Department of Neurology, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.


The "glutamate hypothesis" is one of three major pathophysiological mechanisms of motor neurone injury towards which current research effort into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is directed. There is great structural and functional diversity in the glutamate receptor family which results from combinations of 14 known gene products and their splice variants, with or without additional RNA editing. It is possible that motor neurones express a unique molecular profile of glutamate receptors. Abnormal activation of glutamate receptors is one of five main candidates as a final common pathway to neuronal death. In classical acute excitotoxicity, there is influx of Na+ and CI-, and destabilisation of intracellular Ca2+ homeostasis, which activates a cascade of harmful biochemical events. The concept of secondary excitotoxicity, where cellular injury by glutamate is triggered by disturbances in neuronal energy status, may be particularly relevant to a chronic neurodegenerative disease such as ALS. Data are now beginning to emerge on the fine molecular structure of the glutamate receptors present on human motor neurones, which have a distinct profile of AMPA receptors. Two important molecular features of motor neurones have been identified that may contribute to their vulnerability to neurodegeneration. The low expression of calcium binding proteins and the low expression of the GluR2 AMPA receptor subunit by vulnerable motor neurone groups may render them unduly susceptible to calcium-mediated toxic events following glutamate receptor activation. Eight lines of evidence that indicate a disturbance of glutamatergic neurotransmission in ALS patients are reviewed. The links between abnormal activation of glutamate receptors and other potential mechanisms of neuronal injury, including activation of calcium-mediated second messenger systems and free radical mechanisms, are emphasised. Riluzole, which modulates the glutamate neurotransmitter system, has been shown to prolong survival in patients with ALS. Further research may allow the development of subunit-specific therapeutic targeting of glutamate receptors and modulation of "downstream" events within motor neurones, aimed at protecting vulnerable molecular targets in specific populations of ALS patients.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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