Regulation of pH in the mammalian central nervous system under normal and pathological conditions: facts and hypotheses

Neurochem Int. 2008 May;52(6):905-19. doi: 10.1016/j.neuint.2007.10.015. Epub 2007 Oct 26.


The maintenance of pH homeostasis in the CNS is of key importance for proper execution and regulation of neurotransmission, and deviations from this homeostasis are a crucial factor in the mechanism underlying a spectrum of pathological conditions. The first few sections of the review are devoted to the brain operating under normal conditions. The article commences with an overview of how extrinsic factors modelling the brain at work: neurotransmitters, depolarising stimuli (potassium and voltage changes) and cyclic nucleotides as major signal transducing vehicles affect pH in the CNS. Further, consequences of pH alterations on the major aspects of CNS function and metabolism are outlined. Next, the major cellular events involved in the transport, sequestration, metabolic production and buffering of protons that are common to all the mammalian cells, including the CNS cells. Since CNS function reflects tight interaction between astrocytes and neurons, the pH regulatory events pertinent to either cell type are discussed: overwhelming evidence implicates astrocytes as a key player in pH homeostasis in the brain. The different classes of membrane proteins involved in proton shuttling are listed and their mechanisms of action are given. These include: the Na+/H+ exchanger, different classes of bicarbonate transporters acting in a sodium-dependent- or -independent mode, monocarboxylic acid transporters and the vacuolar-type proton ATPase. A separate section is devoted to carbonic anhydrase, which is represented by multiple isoenzymes capable of pH buffering both in the cell interior and in the extracellular space. Next, impairment of pH regulation and compensatory responses occurring in brain affected by different pathologies: hypoxia/ischemia, epilepsy, hyperammonemic encephalopathies, cerebral tumours and HIV will be described. The review is limited to facts and plausible hypotheses pertaining to phenomena directly involved in pH regulation: changes in pH that accompany metabolic stress but have no distinct implications for the pH regulatory mechanisms are not dealt with. In most cases, the vast body of knowledge derived from in vitro studies remains to be verified in in vivo settings.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Astrocytes / metabolism
  • Brain Diseases, Metabolic / metabolism
  • Brain Diseases, Metabolic / physiopathology
  • Carrier Proteins / metabolism
  • Homeostasis / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Ion Transport / physiology
  • Mammals / metabolism*
  • Nervous System / metabolism*
  • Protons
  • Water-Electrolyte Balance / physiology*


  • Carrier Proteins
  • Protons