A Few Words About Glutamate
Meet another major player in the biology of addiction.
The workhorse neurotransmitter glutamate, made from glutamine, the brain’s most abundant amino acid, has always been a tempting target for new drug development. Drugs that play off receptors for glutamate are already available, and more are in the pipeline. Drug companies have been working on new glutamate-modulating antianxiety drugs, and a glutamate-active drug called acamprosate, which works by occupying sites on glutamate (NMDA) receptors, has found limited use as a drug for alcohol withdrawal after dozens of clinical trials.
Glutamine detoxifies ammonia and combats hypoglycemia, among other things. It is also involved in carrying messages to brain regions involved with memory and learning. An excess of glutamine can cause neural damage and cell death, and it is a prime culprit in ALS, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In sodium salt form, as pictured—> it is monosodium glutamate, a potent food additive. About half of the brain’s neurons are glutamate-generating neurons. Glutamate receptors are dense in the prefrontal cortex, indicating an involvement with higher thought processes like reasoning and risk assessment. Drugs that boost glutamate levels in the brain can cause seizures. Glutamate does most of the damage when people have strokes.
The receptor for glutamate is called the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor. Unfortunately, NMDA antagonists, which might have proven to be potent anti-craving drugs, cannot be used because they induce psychosis. (Dissociative drugs like PCP and ketamine are glutamate antagonists.)Dextromethorphan, the compound found in cough medicines like Robitussin and Romilar, is also a weak glutamate inhibitor. In overdose, it can induce psychotic states similar to those produced by PCP and ketamine. Ely Lilly and others have looked into glutamate-modulating antianxiety drugs, which might also serve as effective anti-craving medications for abstinent drug and alcohol addicts.
As Jason Socrates Bardi at the Scripps Research Institute writes: “Consumption of even small amounts of alcohol increases the amount of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens area of the brain-one of the so-called ‘reward centers.’ However, it is most likely that the GABA and glutamate receptors in some of the reward centers of the basal forebrain-particularly the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala-create a system of positive reinforcement.”
Glutamate receptors, then, are the “hidden” receptors that compliment dopamine and serotonin to produce the classic “buzz” of alcohol, and to varying degrees, other addictive drugs as well. Glutamate receptors in the hippocampus may also be involved in the memory of the buzz.
Writing in The Scientist in 2002, Tom Hollon made the argument that “glutamate’s role in cocaine dependence is even more central than dopamine’s.” Knockout mice lacking the glutamate receptor mGluR5, engineered at GlaxoSmithKline, proved indifferent to cocaine in a study published in Nature.
In an article for Neuropsychology in 2009, Peter Kalivas of the Medical University of South Carolina and coworkers further refined the notion of glutamine-related addictive triggers: “Cortico-striatal glutamate transmission has been implicated in both the initiation and expression of addiction related behaviors, such as locomotor sensitization and drug-seeking,” Kalivas writes.“While glutamate transmission onto dopamine cells in the ventral tegmental area undergoes transient plasticity important for establishing addiction-related behaviors, glutamatergic plasticity in the nucleus accumbens is critical for the expression of these behaviors.”
The same year, in Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, Kalivas laid out his “glutamate homeostasis hypothesis of addiction.”
A failure of the prefrontal cortex to control drug-seeking behaviors can be linked to an enduring imbalance between synaptic and non-synaptic glutamate, termed glutamate homeostasis. The imbalance in glutamate homeostasis engenders changes in neuroplasticity that impair communication between the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens. Some of these pathological changes are amenable to new glutamate- and neuroplasticity-based pharmacotherapies for treating addiction.
This kind of research has at least a chance of leading in the direction of additional candidates for anti-craving drugs, without which many addicts are never going to successfully treat their disease.