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Roles of glutamine in neurotransmission

  • Jan Albrecht (a1), Marta Sidoryk-Węgrzynowicz (a2), Magdalena Zielińska (a1) and Michael Aschner (a2)


Glutamine (Gln) is found abundantly in the central nervous system (CNS) where it participates in a variety of metabolic pathways. Its major role in the brain is that of a precursor of the neurotransmitter amino acids: the excitatory amino acids, glutamate (Glu) and aspartate (Asp), and the inhibitory amino acid, γ-amino butyric acid (GABA). The precursor–product relationship between Gln and Glu/GABA in the brain relates to the intercellular compartmentalization of the Gln/Glu(GABA) cycle (GGC). Gln is synthesized from Glu and ammonia in astrocytes, in a reaction catalyzed by Gln synthetase (GS), which, in the CNS, is almost exclusively located in astrocytes (Martinez-Hernandez et al., 1977). Newly synthesized Gln is transferred to neurons and hydrolyzed by phosphate-activated glutaminase (PAG) to give rise to Glu, a portion of which may be decarboxylated to GABA or transaminated to Asp. There is a rich body of evidence which indicates that a significant proportion of the Glu, Asp and GABA derived from Gln feed the synaptic, neurotransmitter pools of the amino acids. Depolarization-induced-, calcium- and PAG activity-dependent releases of Gln-derived Glu, GABA and Asp have been observed in CNS preparations in vitro and in the brain in situ. Immunocytochemical studies in brain slices have documented Gln transfer from astrocytes to neurons as well as the location of Gln-derived Glu, GABA and Asp in the synaptic terminals. Patch-clamp studies in brain slices and astrocyte/neuron co-cultures have provided functional evidence that uninterrupted Gln synthesis in astrocytes and its transport to neurons, as mediated by specific carriers, promotes glutamatergic and GABA-ergic transmission. Gln entry into the neuronal compartment is facilitated by its abundance in the extracellular spaces relative to other amino acids. Gln also appears to affect neurotransmission directly by interacting with the NMDA class of Glu receptors. Transmission may also be modulated by alterations in cell membrane polarity related to the electrogenic nature of Gln transport or to uncoupled ion conductances in the neuronal or glial cell membranes elicited by Gln transporters. In addition, Gln appears to modulate the synthesis of the gaseous messenger, nitric oxide (NO), by controlling the supply to the cells of its precursor, arginine. Disturbances of Gln metabolism and/or transport contribute to changes in Glu-ergic or GABA-ergic transmission associated with different pathological conditions of the brain, which are best recognized in epilepsy, hepatic encephalopathy and manganese encephalopathy.


Corresponding author

Correspondence should be addressed to: Jan Albrecht and Michael Aschner, phone: 4822 6086617 (J.A.)/ + 615 3228024 (M.A.), fax: 4822 6086422 (J.A.)/ + 615 9364080 (M.A.) emails: (J.A.)/ (M.A.)


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