N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors (NMDAR) have a recognized role in neuronal plasticity while their excessive activation results in excitotoxic death. Therefore, NMDAR antagonists are considered for neuroprotective interventions. However, there is also an emerging role of NMDAR in supporting neuronal survival. Thus, during CNS development, basal NMDAR activity suppresses neuronal apoptosis while moderate NMDAR activation may, at least under some conditions, protect against excitotoxic/ischemic insults. These suggest that while protecting from excitotoxicity, NMDAR antagonists would also reduce pro-survival activity of NMDAR. Hence, the identification of the switches controlling prosurvival vs. pro-excitotoxic outcome of NMDAR stimulation may lead to development of NMDAR antagonists that selectively block the excitotoxicity while enhancing the protective NMDAR signaling. On the other hand, the existence of anti-apoptotic/pro-proliferative NMDAR signaling in transformed cells may result in new strategies to attack cancer. This review focuses on the emerging field of neuroprotective signaling mediators that are implicated in pro-survival activity of NMDAR. We discuss the evidence implicating either NR2B or nonNR2B NMDAR in mediating the protection. We also present the reports linking NMDAR-mediated protection to the activation of survival signaling kinases including ERK and Akt, or suppression of a pro-apoptotic kinase, GSK-3β. The protective role of transcription factors is also discussed. Finally, we review the existing evidence suggesting that NMDAR support survival by regulating the pro-survival trophic factor signaling and/or the cell death machinery. Although NMDAR provide a major survival input to CNS neurons, the NMDAR-activated protective signaling is poorly understood and, therefore, deserves further research effort.
Keywords: glutamate receptors, glutamate, BDNF, GSK-3β, ERK, Akt, CREB, apoptosis, cell death, neuroprotection
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