Glutamate transport and metabolism in dopaminergic neurons of substantia nigra: Implications for the pathogenesis of Parkinson's disease

Andreas Plaitakis, Pullanipally Shashidharan

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Parkinson's disease (PD) is associated with degeneration of the pigmented dopaminergic neurons located in the ventral mesencephalon. Although the mechanisms by which these neurons degenerate in PD are poorly understood, indirect evidence suggests involvement of glutamatergic mechanisms in the pathogenesis of this disorder. Glutamate, the major excitatory transmitter in the mammalian central nervous system, is known to be neurotoxic when present in excess at the synapses. Two major mechanisms protect neurons from glutamate-induced toxicity: (a) removal of synaptic glutamate via a high affinity uptake carried out by cytoplasmic membrane proteins known as excitatory amino acid transporters (EAAT); and (b) metabolism and recycling of glutamate by synaptic astrocytes via glutamine synthetase, an ATP-requiring reaction. However, when extra-cellular glutamate levels are high (0.5-1.0 mM), glutamate metabolism may be shifted toward the ATP-generating oxidative deamination (glutamate dehydrogenase)-TCA cycle pathway. We have cloned and characterized two human glutamate dehydrogenases (GDH), one of which is nerve tissue specific. This isoenzyme requires ADP for its activity and it may become functional when cellular energy charge is low. We have also cloned three human glutamate transporters. One of these (EAAT3) is neuron specific. In situ hybridization studies using human brain revealed that the pigmented dopaminergic neurons, which degenerate in PD, express EAAT3 at high levels. Primary nerve tissue cultures derived from rat ventral mesencephalon were established and studied for their ability to metabolize glutamate. Results showed that mature cultures expressing high levels of GDH activity were capable of rapidly utilizing glutamate added to the medium at high concentrations (1-1.2 mM). This was associated with little release of aspartate and alanine into the medium. In contrast, immature cultures expressing low GDH activity utilized glutamate at lower rates while releasing substantial amounts of aspartate and alanine into the medium. These data suggest that immature mesencephalic cells metabolize a substantial fraction of the glutamate they take up from the medium via the transamination pathway, compared to mature mesencephalic cultures. Immunocytochemical studies on these cultures revealed that dopaminergic neurons (identified by their tyrosine hydroxylase content) showed intense staining for GDH. Furthermore, inhibition of GDH expression by antisense oligonucleotides was toxic to cultured mesencephalic neurons, with dopaminergic neurons being affected at the early stages of this inhibition. Hence, the dense expression by dop aminergic neurons of proteins involved in the transport and metabolism of glutamate may serve particular biological needs intrinsic to these cells. Further studies are required to test whether these properties render these neurons vulnerable to excitotoxic mechanisms or to abnormalities of glutamate metabolism.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-35
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Neurology, Supplement
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2000
Externally publishedYes


  • Antisense oligonucleotides
  • Dopaminergic neurons
  • Glutamate dehydrogenase
  • Glutamate transporters
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Substantia nigra


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