Thursday, July 17, 2008

Part 2 of Excitotoxins, Neurodegeneration and Neurodevelopment

How Excitotoxins Were Discovered

In 1957, two opthalmology residents, Lucas and Newhouse, were conducting an experiment on mice to study a particular eye disorder.3 During the course of this experiment they fed newborn mice MSG and discovered that all demonstrated widespread destruction of the inner nerve layer of the retina. Similar destruction was also seen in adult mice but not as severe as the newborns. The results of their experiment was published in the Archives of Opthalmology and soon forgotten. For ten years prior to this report, large amounts of MSG were being added not only to adult foods but also to baby foods in doses equal to those of the experimental animals.
Then in 1969, Dr. John Olney, a neuroscientist and neuropathologist working out of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, repeated Lucas and Newhouse's experiment.4 His lab assistant noticed that the newborn of MSG exposed mice were grossly obese and short in statue. Further examination also demonstrated hypoplastic organs, including pituitary, thyroid, adrenal as well as reproductive dysfunction. Physiologically, they demonstrated multiple endocrine deficiencies, including TSH, growth hormone, LH, FSH, and ACTH. When Dr. Olney examined the animal's brain, he discovered discrete lesions of the arcuate nucleus as well as less severe destruction of other hypothalamic nuclei. Recent studies have shown that glutamate is the most important neurotransmitter in the hypothalamus.5 Since this early observation, monosodium glutamate and other excitatory substances have become the standard tool in studying the function of the hypothalamus. Later studies indicated that the damage by monosodium glutamate was much more widespread, including the hippocampus, circumventricular organs, locus cereulus, amygdala- limbic system, subthalamus, and striatum.6
More recent molecular studies have disclosed the mechanism of this destruction in some detail.7 Early on it was observed that when neurons in vitro were exposed to glutamate and then washed clean, the cells appeared perfectly normal for approximately an hour, at which time they rapidly underwent cell death. It was discovered that when calcium was removed from the medium, the cells continued to survive. Subsequent studies have shown that glutamate, and other excitatory amino acids, attach to a specialized family of receptors ( NMDA, kainate, AMPA and metabotrophic) which in turn, either directly or indirectly, opens the calcium channel on the neuron cell membrane, allowing calcium to flood into the cell. If unchecked, this calcium will trigger a cascade of reactions, including free radical generation, eicosanoid production, and lipid peroxidation, which will destroy the cell. With this calcium triggered stimulation, the neuron becomes very excited, firing its impulses repetitively until the point of cell death, hence the name excitotoxin. The activation of the calcium channel via the NMDA type receptors also involves other membrane receptors such as the zinc, magnesium, phencyclidine, and glycine receptors

In many disorders connected to excitotoxicity, the source of the glutamate and aspartate is indogenous. We know that when brain cells are injured they release large amounts of glutamate from surrounding astrocytes, and this glutamate can further damage surrounding normal neuronal cells. This appears to be the case in strokes, seizures and brain trauma. But, food born excitotoxins can add significantly to this accumulation of toxins.