Programmed cell death (apoptosis) occurs during normal development of the central nervous system. However, the mechanisms that determine which neurons will succumb to apoptosis are poorly understood. Blockade of N- methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptors for only a few hours during late fetal or early neonatal life triggered widespread apoptotic neurodegeneration in the developing rat brain, suggesting that the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, acting at NMDA receptors, controls neuronal survival. These findings may have relevance to human neurodevelopmental disorders involving prenatal (drug-abusing mothers) or postnatal (pediatric anesthesia) exposure to drugs that block NMDA receptors.
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