Questioning Glutamate Excitotoxicity in Acute Brain Damage: The Importance of Spreading Depolarization

R. David Andrew, Eszter Farkas, Jed A. Hartings, K. C. Brennan, Oscar Herreras, Michael Müller, Sergei A. Kirov, Cenk Ayata, Nikita Ollen-Bittle, Clemens Reiffurth, Omer Revah, R. Meldrum Robertson, Ken D. Dawson-Scully, Ghanim Ullah, Jens P. Dreier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Background: Within 2 min of severe ischemia, spreading depolarization (SD) propagates like a wave through compromised gray matter of the higher brain. More SDs arise over hours in adjacent tissue, expanding the neuronal damage. This period represents a therapeutic window to inhibit SD and so reduce impending tissue injury. Yet most neuroscientists assume that the course of early brain injury can be explained by glutamate excitotoxicity, the concept that immediate glutamate release promotes early and downstream brain injury. There are many problems with glutamate release being the unseen culprit, the most practical being that the concept has yielded zero therapeutics over the past 30 years. But the basic science is also flawed, arising from dubious foundational observations beginning in the 1950s Methods: Literature pertaining to excitotoxicity and to SD over the past 60 years is critiqued. Results: Excitotoxicity theory centers on the immediate and excessive release of glutamate with resulting neuronal hyperexcitation. This instigates poststroke cascades with subsequent secondary neuronal injury. By contrast, SD theory argues that although SD evokes some brief glutamate release, acute neuronal damage and the subsequent cascade of injury to neurons are elicited by the metabolic stress of SD, not by excessive glutamate release. The challenge we present here is to find new clinical targets based on more informed basic science. This is motivated by the continuing failure by neuroscientists and by industry to develop drugs that can reduce brain injury following ischemic stroke, traumatic brain injury, or sudden cardiac arrest. One important step is to recognize that SD plays a central role in promoting early neuronal damage. We argue that uncovering the molecular biology of SD initiation and propagation is essential because ischemic neurons are usually not acutely injured unless SD propagates through them. The role of glutamate excitotoxicity theory and how it has shaped SD research is then addressed, followed by a critique of its fading relevance to the study of brain injury. Conclusions: Spreading depolarizations better account for the acute neuronal injury arising from brain ischemia than does the early and excessive release of glutamate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11-30
Number of pages20
JournalNeurocritical Care
StatePublished - Jun 2022


  • Alzheimer disease
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
  • Brain swelling
  • Concussion
  • Dendritic beading
  • Huntington disease
  • Ischemia
  • Ketamine
  • Migraine
  • Modeling
  • Na/K pump
  • Penumbra
  • Persistent vegetative state
  • Stroke
  • Sudden cardiac arrest
  • Traumatic brain injury

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Critical Care and Intensive Care Medicine


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