The role of excitotoxicity in secondary mechanisms of spinal cord injury: a review with an emphasis on the implications for white matter degeneration

J Neurotrauma. 2004 Jun;21(6):754-74. doi: 10.1089/0897715041269641.


Following an initial impact after spinal cord injury (SCI), there is a cascade of downstream events termed 'secondary injury', which culminate in progressive degenerative events in the spinal cord. These secondary injury mechanisms include, but are not limited to, ischemia, inflammation, free radical-induced cell death, glutamate excitotoxicity, cytoskeletal degradation and induction of extrinsic and intrinsic apoptotic pathways. There is emerging evidence that glutamate excitotoxicity plays a key role not only in neuronal cell death but also in delayed posttraumatic spinal cord white matter degeneration. Importantly however, the differences in cellular composition and expression of specific types of glutamate receptors in grey versus white matter require a compartmentalized approach to understand the mechanisms of secondary injury after SCI. This review examines mechanisms of secondary white matter injury with particular emphasis on glutamate excitotoxicity and the potential link of this mechanism to apoptosis. Recent studies have provided new insights into the mechanisms of glutamate release and its potential targets, as well as the downstream pathways associated with glutamate receptor activation in specific types of cells. Evidence from molecular and functional expression of glutamatergic AMPA receptors in white matter glia (and possibly axons), the protective effects of AMPA/kainate antagonists in posttraumatic white matter axonal function, and the vulnerability of oligodendrocytes to excitotoxic cell death suggest that glutamate excitotoxicity is associated with oligodendrocyte apoptosis. The latter mechanism appears key to glutamatergic white matter degeneration after SCI and may represent an attractive therapeutic target.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / physiology
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified / physiology
  • Free Radicals / metabolism
  • Glutamic Acid / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Receptors, Glutamate / physiology*
  • Retrograde Degeneration / immunology
  • Retrograde Degeneration / physiopathology
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / immunology
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / physiopathology*


  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified
  • Free Radicals
  • Receptors, Glutamate
  • Glutamic Acid