Introduction. Penile erection depends on cavernous smooth muscle relaxation that is principally regulated by cyclic nucleotide signaling. It is hoped that a comprehensive review of publications relevant to this subject will be helpful to both scientists and clinicians who are interested in the sciences of erectile function/dysfunction.
Aims. To review the roles of extracellular signaling molecules, their receptors, intracellular effectors, and phosphodiesterases in cyclic nucleotide signaling that leads to cavernous smooth muscle relaxation. The involvement of these molecules in the development of erectile dysfunction and the possibility of using them as therapeutic agents or targets are also discussed.
Methods. Entrez, the search engine for life sciences, was used to search for publications relevant to the topics of this review. Keywords used in the searches included vascular, cavernous, penis, smooth muscle, signaling molecules (adenosine, nitric oxide, etc.), and key elements in the cyclic nucleotide signaling pathways (cAMP, cGMP, cyclases, PKG, PKA, etc.). Articles that are dedicated to the study of erectile function/dysfunction were prioritized for citation.
Results. More than 1,000 articles were identified, many of which are studies of the vascular system and are therefore reviewed but not cited. Studies on erectile function have identified both cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) and cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) signaling pathways in cavernous smooth muscle. Many signaling molecules of these two pathways have been shown capable of inducing erection when administered intracavernously. However, for sexually induced erection, nitric oxide (NO) is the responsible signaling molecule and it passes on the signal through soluble guanyl cyclase (sGC), cGMP, and protein kinase G (PKG).
Conclusions. The NO/sGC/cGMP/PKG pathway is principally responsible for sexually stimulated erection. Detumescence is mainly carried out by the degradation of cGMP by phosphodiesterase 5. Both cAMP and cGMP signaling pathways are susceptible to genetic and biochemical alterations in association with erectile dysfunction. Several key elements along these pathways are potential therapeutic targets.