Glutamate is the most abundant swift excitatory neurotransmitter in the mammalian nervous system. At chemical synapses, glutamate is stored in vesicles. Nerve impulses trigger release of glutamate from the pre-synaptic cell. In the opposing post-synaptic cell, glutamate receptors, such as the NMDA receptor, bind glutamate and are activated. Because of its role in synaptic plasticity, it is believed that glutamic acid is involved in cognitive functions like learning and memory in the brain.
Glutamate transporters are found in neuronal and glial membranes. They rapidly remove glutamate from the extracellular space. In brain injury or disease, they can work in reverse and excess glutamate can accumulate outside cells. This process causes calcium ions to enter cells via NMDA receptor channels, leading to neuronal damage and eventual cell death, and is called excitotoxicity.