JOURNAL ARTICLE
REVIEW

Brain amino acid requirements and toxicity: the example of leucine

Marc Yudkoff, Yevgeny Daikhin, Ilana Nissim, Oksana Horyn, Bohdan Luhovyy, Bogdan Luhovyy, Adam Lazarow, Itzhak Nissim
Journal of Nutrition 2005, 135 (6 Suppl): 1531S-8S
15930465
Glutamic acid is an important excitatory neurotransmitter of the brain. Two key goals of brain amino acid handling are to maintain a very low intrasynaptic concentration of glutamic acid and also to provide the system with precursors from which to synthesize glutamate. The intrasynaptic glutamate level must be kept low to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio upon the release of glutamate from nerve terminals and to minimize the risk of excitotoxicity consequent to excessive glutamatergic stimulation of susceptible neurons. The brain must also provide neurons with a constant supply of glutamate, which both neurons and glia robustly oxidize. The branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), particularly leucine, play an important role in this regard. Leucine enters the brain from the blood more rapidly than any other amino acid. Astrocytes, which are in close approximation to brain capillaries, probably are the initial site of metabolism of leucine. A mitochondrial branched-chain aminotransferase is very active in these cells. Indeed, from 30 to 50% of all alpha-amino groups of brain glutamate and glutamine are derived from leucine alone. Astrocytes release the cognate ketoacid [alpha-ketoisocaproate (KIC)] to neurons, which have a cytosolic branched-chain aminotransferase that reaminates the KIC to leucine, in the process consuming glutamate and providing a mechanism for the "buffering" of glutamate if concentrations become excessive. In maple syrup urine disease, or a congenital deficiency of branched-chain ketoacid dehydrogenase, the brain concentration of KIC and other branched-chain ketoacids can increase 10- to 20-fold. This leads to a depletion of glutamate and a consequent reduction in the concentration of brain glutamine, aspartate, alanine, and other amino acids. The result is a compromise of energy metabolism because of a failure of the malate-aspartate shuttle and a diminished rate of protein synthesis.

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