Loss of glutamine synthetase in the human epileptogenic hippocampus: possible mechanism for raised extracellular glutamate in mesial temporal lobe epilepsy

Lancet. 2004 Jan 3;363(9402):28-37. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(03)15166-5.


Background: High extracellular glutamate concentrations have been identified as a likely trigger of epileptic seizures in mesial temporal lobe epilepsy (MTLE), but the underlying mechanism remains unclear. We investigated whether a deficiency in glutamine synthetase, a key enzyme in catabolism of extracellular glutamate in the brain, could explain the perturbed glutamate homoeostasis in MTLE.

Methods: The anteromedial temporal lobe is the focus of the seizures in MTLE, and surgical resection of this structure, including the hippocampus, leads to resolution of seizures in many cases. By means of immunohistochemistry, western blotting, and functional enzyme assays, we assessed the distribution, quantity, and activity of glutamine synthetase in the MTLE hippocampus.

Findings: In western blots, the expression of glutamine synthetase in the hippocampus was 40% lower in MTLE than in non-MTLE samples (median 44 [IQR 30-58] vs 69 [56-87]% of maximum concentration in standard curve; p=0.043; n=8 and n=6, respectively). The enzyme activity was lower by 38% in MTLE vs non-MTLE (mean 0.0060 [SD 0.0031] vs 0.0097 [0.0042] U/mg protein; p=0.045; n=6 and n=9, respectively). Loss of glutamine synthetase was particularly pronounced in areas of the MTLE hippocampus with astroglial proliferation, even though astrocytes normally have high content of the enzyme. Quantitative immunoblotting showed no significant change in the amount of EAAT2, the predominant glial glutamate transporter in the hippocampus.

Interpretation: A deficiency in glutamine synthetase in astrocytes is a possible molecular basis for extracellular glutamate accumulation and seizure generation in MTLE. Further studies are needed to define the cause, but the loss of glutamine synthetase may provide a new focus for therapeutic interventions in MTLE.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Astrocytes / enzymology
  • Astrocytes / metabolism
  • Blotting, Western
  • Child
  • Epilepsy, Temporal Lobe / enzymology*
  • Epilepsy, Temporal Lobe / metabolism
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Transporter 2 / analysis
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Transporter 2 / metabolism
  • Extracellular Space / chemistry
  • Extracellular Space / metabolism
  • Female
  • Glutamate-Ammonia Ligase / analysis*
  • Glutamate-Ammonia Ligase / deficiency
  • Glutamate-Ammonia Ligase / metabolism
  • Glutamic Acid / analysis*
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism
  • Hippocampus / enzymology*
  • Hippocampus / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Temporal Lobe / enzymology
  • Temporal Lobe / metabolism


  • Excitatory Amino Acid Transporter 2
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Glutamate-Ammonia Ligase