What Is Glutamate

Glutamate is an amino acid, one of the twenty amino acids used to construct proteins, and as a consequence is found in high concentration in every part of the body. In the nervous system it plays a special additional role as a neurotransmitter: a chemical that nerve cells use to send signals to other cells.

In fact, glutamate is by a wide margin the most abundant neurotransmitter in the vertebrate nervous system. It is used by every major excitatory information-transmitting pathway in the vertebrate brain, accounting in total for well over 90% of the synaptic connections in the human brain.

Chemical receptors for glutamate fall into three major classes, known as AMPA receptors, NMDA receptors, and metabotropic glutamate receptors.

Many synapses use multiple types of glutamate receptors. AMPA receptors are ionotropic receptors specialized for fast excitation: in many synapses they produce excitatory electrical responses in their targets a fraction of a millisecond after being stimulated. NMDA receptors are also ionotropic, but they differ from AMPA receptors in being permeable, when activated, to calcium. Their properties make them particularly important for learning and memory. Metabotropic receptors act through second messenger systems to create slow, sustained effects on their targets. A fourth class, known as kainate receptors, are similar in many respects to AMPA receptors, but much less abundant.

Because of its role in synaptic plasticity, glutamate is involved in cognitive functions such as learning and memory in the brain. The form of plasticity known as long-term potentiation takes place at glutamatergic synapses in the hippocampus, neocortex, and other parts of the brain.

Glutamate works not only as a point-to-point transmitter, but also through spill-over synaptic crosstalk between synapses in which summation of glutamate released from a neighboring synapse creates extrasynaptic signaling/volume transmission.


Glutamate is a major constituent of a wide variety of proteins; consequently it is one of the most abundant amino acids in the human body. Under ordinary conditions enough is obtained from the diet that there is no need for any to be synthesized. Nevertheless glutamate is formally classified as a non-essential amino acid, because it can be synthesized from alpha-Ketoglutaric acid, which is produced as part of the citric acid cycle by a series of reactions whose starting point is citrate.

Glutamate cannot cross the blood-brain barrier unassisted, but it is actively transported into the nervous system by a high affinity transport system, which maintains its concentration in brain fluids at a fairly constant level.

Glutamate is synthesized in the central nervous system from glutamine as part of the glutamate-glutamine cycle by the enzyme glutaminase. This can occur in the presynaptic neuron or in neighboring glial cells.

Glutamate itself serves as metabolic precursor for the neurotransmitter GABA, via the action of the enzyme glutamate decarboxylase.

Glutamate Cellular Effects

Glutamate exerts its effects by binding to and activating cell surface receptors. In mammals, four families of glutamate receptors have been identified, known as AMPA receptors, kainate receptors, NMDA receptors, and metabotropic glutamate receptors.

AMPA receptor bound to a glutamate antagonist

The AMPA receptor bound to a glutamate antagonist showing the amino terminal, ligand binding, and transmembrane domain, PDB 3KG2. By Curtis Neveu – CC BY-SA 3.0

The first three families are ionotropic, meaning that when activated they open membrane channels that allow ions to pass through. The metabotropic family are G protein-coupled receptors, meaning that they exert their effects via a complex second messenger system.

Disease, Sisabilities, And Pharmacology

Glutamate transporters, EAAT and VGLUT, are found in neuronal and glial membranes. They rapidly remove glutamate from the extracellular space. In brain injury or disease, they often work in reverse, and excess glutamate can accumulate outside cells. This process causes calcium ions to enter cells via NMDA receptor channels, leading to neuronal damage and eventual cell death, and is called excitotoxicity. The mechanisms of cell death include

  • Damage to mitochondria from excessively high intracellular Ca2+
  • Glu/Ca2+-mediated promotion of transcription factors for pro-apoptotic genes, or downregulation of transcription factors for anti-apoptotic genes

Excitotoxicity due to excessive glutamate release and impaired uptake occurs as part of the ischemic cascade and is associated with stroke, autism, some forms of intellectual disability, and diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, lathyrism, and Alzheimer’s disease. In contrast, decreased glutamate release is observed under conditions of classical phenylketonuria leading to developmental disruption of glutamate receptor expression.

Glutamic acid has been implicated in epileptic seizures. Microinjection of glutamic acid into neurons produces spontaneous depolarisations around one second apart, and this firing pattern is similar to what is known as paroxysmal depolarizing shift in epileptic attacks.


The presence of glutamate in every part of the body as a building-block for protein made its special role in the nervous system difficult to recognize: its function as a neurotransmitter was not generally accepted until the 1970s, decades after the identification of acetylcholine, norepinephrine, and serotonin as neurotransmitters.

The first suggestion that glutamate might function as a transmitter came from T. Hayoshi in 1954, who was motivated by the finding that injections of glutamate into the cerebral ventricles of dogs could cause them to have seizures. Other support for this idea soon appeared, but the majority of physiologists were skeptical, for a variety of theoretical and empirical reasons.

Ironically, one of the most common reasons for skepticism was the universality of glutamate’s excitatory effects in the CNS, which seemed inconsistent with the specificity expected of a neurotransmitter. Other reasons for skepticism included a lack of known antagonists and the absence of a known mechanism for inactivation. A series of discoveries during the 1970s resolved most of these doubts, and by 1980 the compelling nature of the evidence was almost universally recognized.

Robert W. Gereau, Geoffrey Swanson
The Glutamate Receptors
Humana Press; 2008 edition, ISBN: 978-1588297921

Arne Schousboe, Ursula Sonnewald
The Glutamate/GABA-Glutamine Cycle: Amino Acid Neurotransmitter Homeostasis
Springer; 1st ed. 2016 edition ISBN: 978-3319450940

Image: L-Glutamate Structural Formula