Journal article Open Access

Excitotoxic and Excitoprotective Mechanisms: Abundant Targets for the Prevention and Treatment of Neurodegenerative Disorders

Mattson, Mark P.

Activation of glutamate receptors can trigger the death of neurons and some types of glial cells, particularly when the cells are coincidentally subjected to adverse conditions such as reduced levels of oxygen or glucose, increased levels of oxidative stress, exposure to toxins or other pathogenic agents, or a disease-causing genetic mutation. Such excitotoxic cell death involves excessive calcium influx and release from internal organelles, oxyradical production, and engagement of programmed cell death (apoptosis) cascades. Apoptotic proteins such as p53, Bax, and Par-4 induce mitochondrial membrane permeability changes resulting in the release of cytochrome c and the activation of proteases, such as caspase-3. Events occurring at several subcellular sites, including the plasma membrane, endoplasmic reticulum, mitochondria and nucleus play important roles in excitotoxicity. Excitotoxic cascades are initiated in postsynaptic dendrites and may either cause local degeneration or plasticity of those synapses, or may propagate the signals to the cell body resulting in cell death. Cells possess an array of anti-excitotoxic mechanisms including neurotrophic signaling pathways, intrinsic stress-response pathways, and survival proteins such as protein chaperones, calcium-binding proteins, and inhibitor of apoptosis proteins. Considerable evidence supports roles for excitotoxicity in acute disorders such as epileptic seizures, stroke and traumatic brain and spinal cord injury, as well as in chronic age-related disorders such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and Huntington's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. A better understanding of the excitotoxic process is not only leading to the development of novel therapeutic approaches for neurodegenerative disorders, but also to unexpected insight into mechanisms of synaptic plasticity.

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