The role of excitotoxicity in the pathogenesis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

Biochim Biophys Acta. 2006 Nov-Dec;1762(11-12):1068-82. doi: 10.1016/j.bbadis.2006.05.002. Epub 2006 May 17.


Unfortunately and despite all efforts, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) remains an incurable neurodegenerative disorder characterized by the progressive and selective death of motor neurons. The cause of this process is mostly unknown, but evidence is available that excitotoxicity plays an important role. In this review, we will give an overview of the arguments in favor of the involvement of excitotoxicity in ALS. The most important one is that the only drug proven to slow the disease process in humans, riluzole, has anti-excitotoxic properties. Moreover, consumption of excitotoxins can give rise to selective motor neuron death, indicating that motor neurons are extremely sensitive to excessive stimulation of glutamate receptors. We will summarize the intrinsic properties of motor neurons that could render these cells particularly sensitive to excitotoxicity. Most of these characteristics relate to the way motor neurons handle Ca(2+), as they combine two exceptional characteristics: a low Ca(2+)-buffering capacity and a high number of Ca(2+)-permeable AMPA receptors. These properties most likely are essential to perform their normal function, but under pathological conditions they could become responsible for the selective death of motor neurons. In order to achieve this worst-case scenario, additional factors/mechanisms could be required. In 1 to 2% of the ALS patients, mutations in the SOD1 gene could shift the balance from normal motor neuron excitation to excitotoxicity by decreasing glutamate uptake in the surrounding astrocytes and/or by interfering with mitochondrial function. We will discuss point by point these different pathogenic mechanisms that could give rise to classical and/or slow excitotoxicity leading to selective motor neuron death.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / etiology*
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Calcium Signaling*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Motor Neurons / drug effects*
  • Nerve Degeneration
  • Receptors, Neurotransmitter / metabolism


  • Receptors, Neurotransmitter