The glutamate/GABA-glutamine cycle: aspects of transport, neurotransmitter homeostasis and ammonia transfer


Address correspondence and reprint requests to Mr Lasse K. Bak, M.Sc., Department of Pharmacology and Pharmacotherapy, The Danish University of Pharmaceutical Sciences, 2 Universitetsparken, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark. E-mail:


Neurons are metabolically handicapped in the sense that they are not able to perform de novo synthesis of neurotransmitter glutamate and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) from glucose. A metabolite shuttle known as the glutamate/GABA-glutamine cycle describes the release of neurotransmitter glutamate or GABA from neurons and subsequent uptake into astrocytes. In return, astrocytes release glutamine to be taken up into neurons for use as neurotransmitter precursor. In this review, the basic properties of the glutamate/GABA-glutamine cycle will be discussed, including aspects of transport and metabolism. Discussions of stoichiometry, the relative role of glutamate vs. GABA and pathological conditions affecting the glutamate/GABA-glutamine cycling are presented. Furthermore, a section is devoted to the accompanying ammonia homeostasis of the glutamate/GABA-glutamine cycle, examining the possible means of intercellular transfer of ammonia produced in neurons (when glutamine is deamidated to glutamate) and utilized in astrocytes (for amidation of glutamate) when the glutamate/GABA-glutamine cycle is operating. A main objective of this review is to endorse the view that the glutamate/GABA-glutamine cycle must be seen as a bi-directional transfer of not only carbon units but also nitrogen units.