Glutamate Transport and Preterm Brain Injury

Silvia Pregnolato, Ela Chakkarapani, Anthony R. Isles, Karen Luyt

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article (Academic Journal)peer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)
197 Downloads (Pure)


Preterm birth complications are the leading cause of child death worldwide and a top global health priority. Among the survivors, the risk of life-long disabilities is high, including cerebral palsy and impairment of movement, cognition, and behavior. Understanding the molecular mechanisms of preterm brain injuries is at the core of future healthcare improvements. Glutamate excitotoxicity is a key mechanism in preterm brain injury, whereby the accumulation of extracellular glutamate damages the delicate immature oligodendrocytes and neurons, leading to the typical patterns of injury seen in the periventricular white matter. Glutamate excitotoxicity is thought to be induced by an interaction between environmental triggers of injury in the perinatal period, particularly cerebral hypoxia-ischemia and infection/inflammation, and developmental and genetic vulnerabilities. To avoid extracellular build-up of glutamate, the brain relies on rapid uptake by sodium-dependent glutamate transporters. Astrocytic excitatory amino acid transporter 2 (EAAT2) is responsible for up to 95% of glutamate clearance, and several lines of evidence suggest that it is essential for brain functioning. While in the adult EAAT2 is predominantly expressed by astrocytes, EAAT2 is transiently upregulated in the immature oligodendrocytes and selected neuronal populations during mid-late gestation, at the peak time for preterm brain injury. This developmental upregulation may interact with perinatal hypoxia-ischemia and infection/inflammation and contribute to the selective vulnerability of the immature oligodendrocytes and neurons in the preterm brain. Disruption of EAAT2 may involve not only altered expression but also impaired function with reversal of transport direction. Importantly, elevated EAAT2 levels have been found in the reactive astrocytes and macrophages of human infant post-mortem brains with severe white matter injury (cystic periventricular leukomalacia), potentially suggesting an adaptive mechanism against excitotoxicity. Interestingly, EAAT2 is suppressed in animal models of acute hypoxic-ischemic brain injury at term, pointing to an important and complex role in newborn brain injuries. Enhancement of EAAT2 expression and transport function is gathering attention as a potential therapeutic approach for a variety of adult disorders and awaits exploration in the context of the preterm brain injuries.
Original languageEnglish
Article number417
Number of pages19
JournalFrontiers in Physiology
Issue numberAPR
Publication statusPublished - 24 Apr 2019


  • preterm infant
  • brain injury
  • glutamate
  • excitotoxicity
  • inflammation
  • EAAT2
  • SLC1A2
  • GLT-1
  • glutamate transporter


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