Excitotoxicity is the pathological process by which nerve cells are damaged and killed by excessive stimulation by neurotransmitters such as glutamate and similar substances. This occurs when receptors for the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate (glutamate receptors) such as the NMDA receptor and AMPA receptor are overactivated. Excitotoxins like NMDA and kainic acid which bind to these receptors, as well as pathologically high levels of glutamate, can cause excitotoxicity by allowing high levels of calcium ions (Ca2+) to enter the cell. Ca2+ influx into cells activates a number of enzymes, including phospholipases, endonucleases, and proteases such as calpain. These enzymes go on to damage cell structures such as components of the cytoskeleton, membrane, and DNA.
Excitotoxicity may be involved in spinal cord injury, stroke, traumatic brain injury, hearing loss (through noise overexposure or ototoxicity) and in neurodegenerative diseases of the central nervous system (CNS) such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson's disease, alcoholism or alcohol withdrawal, and Huntington's disease. Other common conditions that cause excessive glutamate concentrations around neurons are hypoglycemia and status epilepticus.