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Keywords:

  • Peptide neurotransmitter;
  • Metabotropic glutamate receptor agonist;
  • Excitotoxicity;
  • N-Acetylaspartylglutamate

In the progress of science, as in life, timing is important. The acidic dipeptide, N-acetylaspartylglutamate (NAAG), was discovered in the mammalian nervous system in 1965, but initially was not considered to be a neurotransmitter candidate. In the mid-1980s, a few laboratories revisited the question of NAAG's role in the nervous system and pursued hypotheses regarding its function that ranged from a precursor for the transmitter pool of glutamate to a direct role as a peptide transmitter. Since that time, NAAG has been tested against nearly all of the established criteria for identification of a neurotransmitter. It successfully meets each of these tests, including a concentrated presence in neurons and synaptic vesicles, release from axon endings in a calcium-dependent manner following initiation of action potentials, and extracellular hydrolysis by membrane-bound peptidase activity. NAAG is the most prevalent and widely distributed neuropeptide in the mammalian nervous system. NAAG activates NMDA receptors with a low potency that may vary among receptor subtypes, and it is a highly selective agonist at the type 3 metabotropic glutamate receptor (mGluR3). Acting through this receptor, NAAG reduces cyclic AMP levels, decreases voltage-dependent calcium conductance, suppresses excitotoxicity, influences long-term potentiation and depression, regulates GABAA receptor subunit expression, and inhibits synaptic release of GABA from cortical neurons. Cloning of peptidase activities against NAAG provides opportunities to study the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which synaptic NAAG peptidase activity is controlled. Given the codistribution of this peptide with a spectrum of traditional transmitters and its ability to activate mGluR3, we speculate that one role for NAAG following synaptic release is the activation of metabotropic autoreceptors that inhibit subsequent transmitter release. A second role is the production of extracellular glutamate following NAAG hydrolysis.