The role of excitotoxicity in neurodegenerative disease: implications for therapy

Pharmacol Ther. 1999 Mar;81(3):163-221. doi: 10.1016/s0163-7258(98)00042-4.


Glutamic acid is the principal excitatory neurotransmitter in the mammalian central nervous system. Glutamic acid binds to a variety of excitatory amino acid receptors, which are ligand-gated ion channels. It is activation of these receptors that leads to depolarisation and neuronal excitation. In normal synaptic functioning, activation of excitatory amino acid receptors is transitory. However, if, for any reason, receptor activation becomes excessive or prolonged, the target neurones become damaged and eventually die. This process of neuronal death is called excitotoxicity and appears to involve sustained elevations of intracellular calcium levels. Impairment of neuronal energy metabolism may sensitise neurones to excitotoxic cell death. The principle of excitotoxicity has been well-established experimentally, both in in vitro systems and in vivo, following administration of excitatory amino acids into the nervous system. A role for excitotoxicity in the aetiology or progression of several human neurodegenerative diseases has been proposed, which has stimulated much research recently. This has led to the hope that compounds that interfere with glutamatergic neurotransmission may be of clinical benefit in treating such diseases. However, except in the case of a few very rare conditions, direct evidence for a pathogenic role for excitotoxicity in neurological disease is missing. Much attention has been directed at obtaining evidence for a role for excitotoxicity in the neurological sequelae of stroke, and there now seems to be little doubt that such a process is indeed a determining factor in the extent of the lesions observed. Several clinical trials have evaluated the potential of antiglutamate drugs to improve outcome following acute ischaemic stroke, but to date, the results of these have been disappointing. In amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, neurolathyrism, and human immunodeficiency virus dementia complex, several lines of circumstantial evidence suggest that excitotoxicity may contribute to the pathogenic process. An antiglutamate drug, riluzole, recently has been shown to provide some therapeutic benefit in the treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease are examples of neurodegenerative diseases where mitochondrial dysfunction may sensitise specific populations of neurones to excitotoxicity from synaptic glutamic acid. The first clinical trials aimed at providing neuroprotection with antiglutamate drugs are currently in progress for these two diseases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • AIDS Dementia Complex / etiology
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / etiology
  • Calcium / metabolism*
  • Excitatory Amino Acids / physiology*
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism
  • Glutamic Acid / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • N-Methylaspartate / physiology
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / drug therapy
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / etiology*
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / physiopathology
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / antagonists & inhibitors*


  • Excitatory Amino Acids
  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Glutamic Acid
  • N-Methylaspartate
  • Calcium