Excitotoxins, Neurodegeneration and Neurodevelopment

By Russell L. Blaylock, M.D

There are a growing number of clinicians and basic scientists who are convinced that a group of compounds called excitotoxins play a critical role in the development of several neurological disorders including migraines, seizures, infections, abnormal neural development, certain endocrine disorders, neuropsychiatric disorders, learning disorders in children, AIDS dementia, episodic violence, lyme borreliosis, hepatic encephalopathy, specific types of obesity, and especially the neurodegenerative diseases, such as ALS, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and olivopontocerebellar degeneration.1

An enormous amount of both clinical and experimental evidence has accumulated over the past decade supporting this basic premise.2 Yet, the FDA still refuses to recognize the immediate and long term danger to the public caused by the practice of allowing various excitotoxins to be added to the food supply, such as MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and aspartame. The amount of these neurotoxins added to our food has increased enormously since their first introduction. For example, since 1948 the amount of MSG added to foods has doubled every decade. By 1972 262,000 metric tons were being added to foods. Over 800 million pounds of aspartame have been consumed in various products since it was first approved. Ironically, these food additives have nothing to do with preserving food or protecting its integrity. They are all used to alter the taste of food. MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and natural flavoring are used to enhance the taste of food so that it taste better. Aspartame is an artificial sweetener.

These toxins (excitotoxins) are not present in just a few foods, but rather in almost all processed foods. In many cases they are being added in disguised forms, such as natural flavoring, spices, yeast extract, textured protein, soy protein extract, etc.

So, what is an excitotoxin? These are substances, usually acidic amino acids that react with specialized receptors in the brain in such a way as to lead to destruction of certain types of neurons. Glutamate is one of the more commonly known excitotoxins. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamate. This amino acid is a normal neurotransmitter in the brain. …glutamate, as a neurotransmitter, exists in the extracellular fluid only in very, very small concentrations — no more than 8 to 12uM. When the concentration of this transmitter rises above this level the neurons begin to fire abnormally. At higher concentrations, the cells undergo a specialized process of delayed cell death known as excitotoxicity, that is, they are excited to death.

…in most instances the effects are subtle and develop over a long period of time. While the food additives, MSG and aspartame, are probably not direct causes of the neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s dementia, Parkinson’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, they may well precipitate these disorders and certainly worsen their pathology as we shall see. It may be that many people with a propensity for developing one of these diseases would never develop a full blown disorder had it not been for their exposure to high levels of food borne excitotoxin additives. Some may have had a very mild form of the disease had it not been for the exposure. Likewise, food borne excitotoxins may be harmful to those suffering from strokes, head injury and HIV infection and certainly should not be used in a hospital setting.

How Excitotoxins Were Discovered

In 1957, two opthalmology residents, Lucas and Newhouse, were conducting an experiment on mice to study a particular eye disorder.3 During the course of this experiment they fed newborn mice MSG and discovered that all demonstrated widespread destruction of the inner nerve layer of the retina. Similar destruction was also seen in adult mice but not as severe as the newborns.

Then in 1969, Dr. John Olney, a neuroscientist and neuropathologist working out of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, repeated Lucas and Newhouse’s experiment.4 His lab assistant noticed that the newborn of MSG exposed mice were grossly obese and short in statue. Further examination also demonstrated hypoplastic organs, including pituitary, thyroid, adrenal as well as reproductive dysfunction. Physiologically, they demonstrated multiple endocrine deficiencies.. When Dr. Olney examined the animal’s brain, he discovered discrete lesions of the arcuate nucleus as well as less severe destruction of other hypothalamic nuclei. …We know that when brain cells are injured they release large amounts of glutamate from surrounding astrocytes, and this glutamate can further damage surrounding normal neuronal cells. This appears to be the case in strokes, seizures and brain trauma. But, food born excitotoxins can add significantly to this accumulation of toxins.