Acetylcholine beyond neurons: the non-neuronal cholinergic system in humans


Institute of Pathology, Johannes Gutenberg University, University Hospital Mainz, Langenbeckstr. 1, Mainz D-55101, Germany. E-mail:


Animal life is controlled by neurons and in this setting cholinergic neurons play an important role. Cholinergic neurons release ACh, which via nicotinic and muscarinic receptors (n- and mAChRs) mediate chemical neurotransmission, a highly integrative process. Thus, the organism responds to external and internal stimuli to maintain and optimize survival and mood. Blockade of cholinergic neurotransmission is followed by immediate death. However, cholinergic communication has been established from the beginning of life in primitive organisms such as bacteria, algae, protozoa, sponge and primitive plants and fungi, irrespective of neurons. Tubocurarine- and atropine-sensitive effects are observed in plants indicating functional significance. All components of the cholinergic system (ChAT, ACh, n- and mAChRs, high-affinity choline uptake, esterase) have been demonstrated in mammalian non-neuronal cells, including those of humans. Embryonic stem cells (mice), epithelial, endothelial and immune cells synthesize ACh, which via differently expressed patterns of n- and mAChRs modulates cell activities to respond to internal or external stimuli. This helps to maintain and optimize cell function, such as proliferation, differentiation, formation of a physical barrier, migration, and ion and water movements. Blockade of n- and mACHRs on non-innervated cells causes cellular dysfunction and/or cell death. Thus, cholinergic signalling in non-neuronal cells is comparable to cholinergic neurotransmission. Dysfunction of the non-neuronal cholinergic system is involved in the pathogenesis of diseases. Alterations have been detected in inflammatory processes and a pathobiologic role of non-neuronal ACh in different diseases is discussed. The present article reviews recent findings about the non-neuronal cholinergic system in humans.

British Journal of Pharmacology (2008) 154, 1558–1571; doi:10.1038/bjp.2008.185; published online 26 May 2008