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Keywords:

  • NMDA;
  • glutamate receptors;
  • NR2B;
  • allosteric modulators;
  • excitotoxicity;
  • neuropathic pain

N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors (NMDARs) are ion channels gated by glutamate, the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the mammalian central nervous system (CNS). They are widespread in the CNS and are involved in numerous physiological and pathological processes including synaptic plasticity, chronic pain and psychosis. Aberrant NMDAR activity also plays an important role in the neuronal loss associated with ischaemic insults and major degenerative disorders including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. Agents that target and alter NMDAR function may, thus, have therapeutic benefit. Interestingly, NMDARs are endowed with multiple extracellular regulatory sites that recognize ions or small molecule ligands, some of which are likely to regulate receptor function in vivo. These allosteric sites, which differ from agonist-binding and channel-permeation sites, provide means to modulate, either positively or negatively, NMDAR activity. The present review focuses on allosteric modulation of NMDARs containing the NR2B subunit. Indeed, the NR2B subunit confers a particularly rich pharmacology with distinct recognition sites for exogenous and endogenous allosteric ligands. Moreover, NR2B-containing receptors, compared with other NMDAR subtypes, appear to contribute preferentially to pathological processes linked to overexcitation of glutamatergic pathways. The actions of extracellular H+, Mg2+, Zn2+, of polyamines and neurosteroids, and of the synthetic compounds ifenprodil and derivatives (‘prodils’) are presented. Particular emphasis is put upon the structural determinants and molecular mechanisms that underlie the effects exerted by these agents. A better understanding of how NR2B-containing NMDARs (and NMDARs in general) operate and how they can be modulated should help define new strategies to counteract the deleterious effects of dysregulated NMDAR activity.