Memantine and Ketamine Differentially Alter NMDA Receptor Desensitization

J Neurosci. 2017 Oct 4;37(40):9686-9704. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1173-17.2017. Epub 2017 Sep 6.


Memantine and ketamine are clinically useful NMDA receptor (NMDAR) open channel blockers that inhibit NMDARs with similar potency and kinetics, but display vastly different clinical profiles. This discrepancy has been hypothesized to result from inhibition by memantine and ketamine of overlapping but distinct NMDAR subpopulations. For example, memantine but not ketamine may inhibit extrasynaptic NMDARs more effectively than synaptic NMDARs. However, the basis for preferential NMDAR inhibition depending on subcellular location has not been investigated systematically. We integrated recordings from heterologously expressed single NMDAR subtypes, kinetic modeling, and recordings of synaptically evoked NMDAR responses in acute brain slices to investigate mechanisms by which channel blockers may distinguish NMDAR subpopulations. We found that memantine and ketamine differentially alter NMDAR desensitization and that memantine stabilizes a Ca2+-dependent desensitized state. As a result, inhibition by memantine of GluN1/2A receptors in tsA201 cells and of native synaptic NMDARs in cortical pyramidal neurons from mice of either sex increased in conditions that enhanced intracellular Ca2+ accumulation. Therefore, differential inhibition by memantine and ketamine based on NMDAR location is likely to result from location dependence of the intensity and duration of NMDAR activation. Modulation of Ca2+-dependent NMDAR desensitization is an unexplored mechanism of inhibitory action with the potential to endow drugs with NMDAR selectivity that leads to superior clinical profiles. Our results suggest that designing compounds to target specific receptor states, rather than specific receptor types, may be a viable strategy for future drug development.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Memantine and ketamine are NMDA receptor (NMDAR) channel-blocking drugs with divergent clinical effects. Understanding mechanistically their differential actions may advance our understanding of nervous system disorders and suggest strategies for the design of more effective drugs. Here, we show that memantine and ketamine have contrasting effects on NMDAR desensitization. Ketamine binding decreases occupancy of desensitized states of the GluN1/2B NMDAR subtype. In contrast, memantine binding increases occupancy of GluN1/2A and native NMDAR desensitized states entered after accumulation of intracellular Ca2+, a novel inhibitory mechanism. These properties may contribute to inhibition of distinct NMDAR subpopulations by memantine and ketamine and help to explain their differential clinical effects. Our results suggest stabilization of Ca2+-dependent desensitized states as a new strategy for pharmaceutical neuroprotection.

Keywords: NMDA receptor subtype; desensitization; extrasynaptic NMDA receptors; open channel block; synaptic NMDA receptors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Female
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Ketamine / pharmacology*
  • Male
  • Memantine / pharmacology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / metabolism*
  • Organ Culture Techniques
  • Prefrontal Cortex / drug effects
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / metabolism*


  • Excitatory Amino Acid Antagonists
  • Gprin1 protein, mouse
  • NR2B NMDA receptor
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Ketamine
  • Memantine