The role of excitatory amino acids in behavioral sensitization to psychomotor stimulants

Prog Neurobiol. 1998 Apr;54(6):679-720. doi: 10.1016/s0301-0082(97)00090-7.


Behavioral sensitization refers to the progressive augmentation of behavioral responses to psychomotor stimulants that develops during their repeated administration and persists even after long periods of withdrawal. It provides an animal model for the intensification of drug craving believed to underlie addiction in humans. Mechanistic similarities between sensitization and other forms of neuronal plasticity were first suggested on the basis of the ability of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonists to prevent the development of sensitization [Karler, R., Calder, L. D., Chaudhry, I. A. and Turkanis, S. A. (1989) Blockade of "reverse tolerance" to cocaine and amphetamine by MK-801. Life Sci., 45, 599-606]. This article will review the large number of subsequent studies addressing: (1) the roles of NMDA, alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionate (AMPA) and metabotropic glutamate receptors in the development and expression of behavioral sensitization, (2) excitatory amino acids (EAAs) and the role of conditioning in sensitization, (3) controversies regarding EAA involvement in behavioral sensitization based on studies with MK-801, (4) the effects of acute and repeated stimulant administration on EAA neurochemistry and EAA receptor expression, and (5) the neuroanatomy of EAA involvement in sensitization. To summarize, NMDA, AMPA metabotropic glutamate receptors all participate in the development of sensitization, while maintenance of the sensitized state involves alterations in neurochemical measures of EAA transmission as well as in the expression and sensitivity of AMPA and NMDA receptors. While behavioral sensitization likely involves complex neuronal circuits, with EAAs participating at several points within this circuitry, EAA projections originating in prefrontal cortex may play a particularly important role in the development of sensitization, perhaps via their regulatory effects on midbrain dopamine neurons. The review concludes by critically evaluating various hypotheses to account for EAA involvement in the development of behavioral sensitization, and considering the question of whether EAA receptors are involved in mediating the rewarding effects of psychomotor stimulants and sensitization of such rewarding effects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Psychological / drug effects
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology
  • Dopamine / physiology
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Antagonists / pharmacology*
  • Excitatory Amino Acids / pharmacology*
  • Excitatory Amino Acids / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Psychomotor Performance / drug effects
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Receptors, AMPA / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Receptors, Metabotropic Glutamate / physiology
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / antagonists & inhibitors


  • Excitatory Amino Acid Antagonists
  • Excitatory Amino Acids
  • Receptors, AMPA
  • Receptors, Metabotropic Glutamate
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Dopamine