Journal of Neural Transmission

, Volume 121, Issue 8, pp 983–1006 | Cite as

The neurotransmitter glutamate and human T cells: glutamate receptors and glutamate-induced direct and potent effects on normal human T cells, cancerous human leukemia and lymphoma T cells, and autoimmune human T cells

  • Yonatan Ganor
  • Mia LeviteEmail author
Neurology and Preclinical Neurological Studies - Review Article


Glutamate is the most important excitatory neurotransmitter of the nervous system, critically needed for the brain’s development and function. Glutamate has also a signaling role in peripheral organs. Herein, we discuss glutamate receptors (GluRs) and glutamate-induced direct effects on human T cells. T cells are the most important cells of the adaptive immune system, crucially needed for eradication of all infectious organisms and cancer. Normal, cancer and autoimmune human T cells express functional ionotropic and metabotropic GluRs. Different GluR subtypes are expressed in different T cell subtypes, and in resting vs. activated T cells. Glutamate by itself, at low physiological 10−8M to 10−5M concentrations and via its several types of GluRs, activates many key T cell functions in normal human T cells, among them adhesion, migration, proliferation, intracellular Ca2+ fluxes, outward K+ currents and more. Glutamate also protects activated T cells from antigen-induced apoptotic cell death. By doing all that, glutamate can improve substantially the function and survival of resting and activated human T cells. Yet, glutamate’s direct effects on T cells depend dramatically on its concentration and might be inhibitory at excess pathological 10−3M glutamate concentrations. The effects of glutamate on T cells also depend on the specific GluRs types expressed on the target T cells, the T cell’s type and subtype, the T cell’s resting or activated state, and the presence or absence of other simultaneous stimuli besides glutamate. Glutamate also seems to play an active role in T cell diseases. For example, glutamate at several concentrations induces or enhances significantly very important functions of human T-leukemia and T-lymphoma cells, among them adhesion to the extracellular matrix, migration, in vivo engraftment into solid organs, and the production and secretion of the cancer-associated matrix metalloproteinase MMP-9 and its inducer CD147. Glutamate induces all these effects via activation of GluRs highly expressed in human T-leukemia and T-lymphoma cells. Glutamate also affects T cell-mediated autoimmune diseases. With regards to multiple sclerosis (MS), GluR3 is highly expressed in T cells of MS patients, and upregulated significantly during relapse and when there is neurological evidence of disease activity. Moreover, glutamate or AMPA (10−8M to 10−5M) enhances the proliferation of autoreactive T cells of MS patients in response to myelin proteins. Thus, glutamate may play an active role in MS. Glutamate and its receptors also seem to be involved in autoimmune rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus. Finally, T cells can produce and release glutamate that in turn affects other cells, and during the contact between T cells and dendritic cells, the latter cells release glutamate that has potent effects on the T cells. Together, these evidences show that glutamate has very potent effects on normal, and also on cancer and autoimmune pathological T cells. Moreover, these evidences suggest that glutamate and glutamate-receptor agonists might be used for inducing and boosting beneficial T cell functions, for example, T cell activity against cancer and infectious organisms, and that glutamate-receptor antagonists might be used for preventing glutamate-induced activating effects on detrimental autoimmune and cancerous T cells.


Glutamate Glutamate Receptor Normal human T cells Cancer human T cells Autoimmune human T cells 


Conflict of interest

The authors have no financial relationship with the organization that sponsored the research.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, Cochin Institute, INSERM U1016, CNRS UMR8104Paris Descartes UniversityParisFrance
  2. 2.The School of Behavioral SciencesThe Academic College of Tel-Aviv YaffoTel AvivIsrael

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