Muscle and neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors

Structure, function and pathogenicity


S. J. Tzartos, Department of Pharmacy, University of Patras, GR26500, Rio Patras, Greece
Tel: +30 261 096 9955
Department of Biochemistry, Hellenic Pasteur Institute, GR11521 Athens, Greece
Fax: +30 210 647 8842
Tel: +30 210 647 8844


Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) are integral membrane proteins and prototypic members of the ligand-gated ion-channel superfamily, which has precursors in the prokaryotic world. They are formed by the assembly of five transmembrane subunits, selected from a pool of 17 homologous polypeptides (α1–10, β1–4, γ, δ, and ε). There are many nAChR subtypes, each consisting of a specific combination of subunits, which mediate diverse physiological functions. They are widely expressed in the central nervous system, while, in the periphery, they mediate synaptic transmission at the neuromuscular junction and ganglia. nAChRs are also found in non-neuronal/nonmuscle cells (keratinocytes, epithelia, macrophages, etc.). Extensive research has determined the specific function of several nAChR subtypes. nAChRs are now important therapeutic targets for various diseases, including myasthenia gravis, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, and schizophrenia, as well as for the cessation of smoking. However, knowledge is still incomplete, largely because of a lack of high-resolution X-ray structures for these molecules. Nevertheless, electron microscopy studies on 2D crystals of nAChR from fish electric organs and the determination of the high-resolution X-ray structure of the acetylcholine binding protein (AChBP) from snails, a homolog of the extracellular domain of the nAChR, have been major steps forward and the data obtained have important implications for the design of subtype-specific drugs. Here, we review some of the latest advances in our understanding of nAChRs and their involvement in physiology and pathology.