Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors: from structure to brain function

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Abstract

Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) are ligand-gated ion channels and can be divided into two groups: muscle receptors, which are found at the skeletal neuromuscular junction where they mediate neuromuscular transmission, and neuronal receptors, which are found throughout the peripheral and central nervous system where they are involved in fast synaptic transmission. nAChRs are pentameric structures that are made up of combinations of individual subunits. Twelve neuronal nAChR subunits have been described, α2-α10 and β2-β4; these are differentially expressed throughout the nervous system and combine to form nAChRs with a wide range of physiological and pharmacological profiles. The nAChR has been proposed as a model of an allosteric protein in which effects arising from the binding of a ligand to a site on the protein can lead to changes in another part of the molecule. A great deal is known about the structure of the pentameric receptor. The extracellular domain contains binding sites for numerous ligands, which alter receptor behavior through allosteric mechanisms. Functional studies have revealed that nAChRs contribute to the control of resting membrane potential, modulation of synaptic transmission and mediation of fast excitatory transmission. To date, ten genes have been identified in the human genome coding for the nAChRs. nAChRs have been demonstrated to be involved in cognitive processes such as learning and memory and control of movement in normal subjects. Recent data from knockout animals has extended the understanding of nAChR function. Dysfunction of nAChR has been linked to a number of human diseases such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. nAChRs also play a significant role in nicotine addiction, which is a major public health concern. A genetically transmissible epilepsy, ADNFLE, has been associated with specific mutations in the gene coding for the α4 or β2 subunits, which leads to altered receptor properties.