The human nervous system consists of two main parts, the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS contains the brain and spinal cord. The PNS comprises the nerve fibers that connect the CNS to every other part of the body. The PNS includes the motor neurons that are responsible for mediating voluntary movement. The PNS also includes the autonomic nervous system which encompasses the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, and the enteric nervous system. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are tasked with the regulation of all involuntary activities. The enteric nervous system is unique in that it represents a semi-independent part of the nervous system whose function is to control processes specific to the gastrointestinal system. The nervous systems of the body are composed of two primary types of cell: the neurons that carry the chemical signals of nerve transmission, and the glial cells that serve to support and protect the neurons.
Two important concepts relate to the functioning of the nervous system. These terms are efferent and afferent. Efferent connections in the nervous system refer to those that send signals from the CNS to the effector cells of the body such as muscles and glands. Efferent nerves are, therefore, also referred to as motor neurons. Afferent connections refer to those that send signals from sense organs to the CNS. For this reason these nerves are commonly referred to as sensory neurons.
Another important cellular structure in nervous systems are the ganglia. The term ganglion refers to a bundle (mass) of nerve cell bodies. In the context of the nervous system, ganglia are composed of soma (cell bodies) and dendritic structures. The dendritic trees of most ganglia are interconnected to other dendritic trees resulting in the formation of a plexus. In the human nervous system there are two main groups of ganglia. The dorsal root ganglia, which is also referred to as the spinal ganglia, contains the cell bodies of the sensory nerves. The autonomic ganglia contain the cell bodies of the nerves of the autonomic nervous system. Nerves that project from the CNS to autonomic ganglia are referred to as preganglionic nerves (or fibers). Conversely, nerves projecting from ganglia to effector organs are referred to as postganglionic nerves (or fibers). Generally the term ganglion relates to the peripheral nervous system. However, the term basal ganglia (also basal nuclei) is used commonly to describe the neuroanatomical region of the brain that connects the hypothalamus, cerebral cortex, and the brain stem.
As indicated the autonomic nervous system is composed of three distinct sub-systems. The sympathetic nervous system is predominantly responsible for excitatory action potentials with the goal of inducing the "fight-or-flight" responses of the body under conditions of stress. In general, activation of the sympathetic nervous system results in contraction, for example, vasoconstriction. Although stress is a major trigger of the sympathetic nervous system it is constantly active at a basal level to maintain homeostasis. The neurotransmitters and receptors of the sympathetic nervous system are those of the adrenergic family (see below). The ganglia of the sympathetic nervous system are the nerve cell bodies that lie on either side of the spinal cord. Preganglionic sympathetic fibers are those that exit the spinal cord synapse within these ganglia. The ganglionic neurotransmitter is acetylcholine, ACh. ACh release from the preganglionic synapse binds to nicotinic ACh receptors on the postganglionic cell. ACh binding depolarizes the cell body of the postganglionic neuron generating an action potential that travels to the target organ to elicit a response.
The parasympathetic nervous system is predominantly responsible for inhibitory action potentials resulting in relaxation, for example, vasodilation. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for stimulation of "rest-and-digest" activities that occur when the body is at rest. These responses include, but are not limited to, sexual arousal, salivation, lacrimation (tears), urination, digestion and defecation. The neurotransmitters and receptors of the parasympathetic nervous system are those of the cholinergic family, specifically the muscarinic cholinergic family (see below). The ganglia of the parasympathetic nervous system are also referred to as terminal ganglia as they lie close to, or within, the organs that they innervate. The exceptions to this are the parasympathetic ganglia of the head and neck. Parasympathetic ganglia are those that are found within the target organ. Preganglionic parasympathetic fibers associated with the vagal nerve exit the brainstem and enter their target organs where they form synapses with postganglionic neurons. Like the sympathetic ganglia, the neurotransmitter of parasympathetic ganglia is ACh and it binds to nicotinic receptors on the postganglionic cell.
Neurons are the highly specialized cells of all nervous systems (e.g. CNS and PNS) that are tasks with transmitting signals from one location to another. These cells accomplish this role through specialized membrane-to-membrane junctions called synapses. Most neuron possess an axon which is a long protrusion from the body (soma) of the neuron to the synapse. Axons can extend to distant parts of the body and make thousands of synaptic contacts such as is the case with the CNS neurons of the spinal cord. Axons frequently travel through the body in bundles called nerves. The synapses are termed pre-synaptic and post-synaptic. The pre-synaptic synapse will release secretory granule contents in response to the propagation of an electrochemical signal down its axon. The released substance (termed a neurotransmitter) will then, most likely, bind to a specific receptor on the membrane of the post-synaptic synapse, thereby, propagating the initial signal to the next neuron. The human nervous system is composed of hundreds of different types of neurons. These include sensory neurons that transmute physical stimuli such as light and sound into neural signals, and motor neurons that are responsible for converting neural signals into activation of muscles or glands.
Glial cells (named from the Greek for "glue") are the specialized non-neuronal cells of the nervous system that provide protection, support and nutrition for neurons. As the Greek name glue infers, glial cells hold neurons in place and provide guidance cues which directs axons of the neurons to their appropriate target cell(s). Glial cells are responsible for the maintenance of neural homeostasis, for the formation of myelin, and they play a participatory role in signal transmission in the nervous system. Glial cells provide an electrical insulation (myelin) for neurons which allows for rapid transmission of action potentials and also prevents the abnormal propagation of nerve impulses to inappropriate neurons. The glial cells that produce the myelin sheath are called oligodendrocytes in the CNS and Schwann cells in the PNS. Glial cells also destroy pathogens and remove dead neurons.back to the top
Neurotransmitters are endogenous substances that act as chemical messengers by transmitting signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse. Prior to their release into the synaptic cleft, neurotransmitters are stored in secretory vesicles (called synaptic vesicles) near the plasma membrane of the axon terminal. The release of the neurotransmitter occurs most often in response to the arrival of an action potential at the synapse. When released, the neurotransmitter crosses the synaptic gap and binds to specific receptors in the membrane of the post-synaptic neuron or cell.
Neurotransmitters are generally classified into two main categories related to their overall activity, excitatory or inhibitory. Excitatory neurotransmitters exert excitatory effects on the neuron, thereby, increasing the likelihood that the neuron will fire an action potential. Major excitatory neurotransmitters include glutamate, epinephrine and norepinephrine. Inhibitory neurotransmitters exert inhibitory effects on the neuron, thereby, decreasing the likelihood that the neuron will fire an action potential. Major inhibitory neurotransmitters include GABA, glycine, and serotonin. Some neurotransmitters, can exert both excitatory and inhibitory effects depending upon the type of receptors that are present.
In addition to excitation or inhibition, neurotransmitters can be broadly categorized into two groups defined as small molecule neurotransmitters or peptide neurotransmitters. Many peptides that exhibit neurotransmitter activity also possess hormonal activity since some cells that produce the peptide secrete it into the blood where it then can act on distant cells. Small molecule neurotransmitters include (but are not limited to) acetylcholine, GABA, amino acid neurotransmitters, ATP and nitric oxide (NO). The peptide neurotransmitters include more than 50 different peptides. Many of the gut-derived and hypothalamic neurotransmitter peptides are discussed in detail in the Gut-Brain Interrelationships page. Several peptide neurotransmitters are all derived from the same precursor protein, pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC), as discussed in the Peptide Hormones page.
Many neurotransmitters can also be divided into two broad categories dependent upon whether the receptor activated by the binding of transmitter is a metabotropic or an ionotropic receptor. Metabotropic receptors activate signal transduction upon transmitter binding similar to many peptide hormone receptors which involves a second messenger. Many metabotropic receptors are members of the G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) family. Ionotropic receptors constitute an ion channel, most often a ligand-gated ion channel. Some neurotransmitters, for example glutamate and acetylcholine, bind to multiple receptors some of which are metabotropic and some of which are ionotropic.back to the top
|Transmitter Molecule||Transmitter Class||Derived from||Receptors / Activities / Comments|
|Acetylcholine||Choline||functions in both the CNS and the PNS; receptors are cholinergic; 2 receptor classes: muscarinic (metabotropic) and nicotinic (ionotropic); within the periphery ACh is the major transmitter of the autonomic nervous system where it activates muscles; within the brain its major effects are inhibitory or anti-excitatory; its actions in cardiac tissue are also inhibitory|
|GABA||amino acid||Glutamate||major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the CNS; also exerts effects in the periphery; binds to two classes of receptor termed GABAA (ionotropic) and GABAB (metabotropic)|
|Glutamate||amino acid||most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter in the CNS; glutamate binds to the metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs) of which there are eight (mGluR1–mGluR8) divided into three families; glutamate also binds to several ionotropic receptors including the N-methyl-D-asparatate (NMDA) receptor (NMDAR), the kainate receptors (KAR), and the α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA) receptor (AMPAR)|
|Aspartate||amino acid||stimulates the NMDA receptor but not as strongly as glutamate|
|Glycine||amino acid||inhibitory neurotransmitter in the CNS primarily within the brainstem, spinal cord, and retina; binds to glycine receptors (GlyR) which are ionotropic; there are two separate subunit proteins of each GlyR (α and β) that combine in various ways to generate a pentameric structure; there are four α-subunit genes (α1–4) and one β-subunit gene; the primary adult form of GlyR is composed of three α1 subunits and two β subunits; is also a required co-agonist with glutamate on NMDA receptors and in this capacity exerts an excitatory effect|
|Histamine||diamine||histidine||produced by mast cells, basophils, enterochromaffin-like cells (ECL) of the stomach, and hypothalamus; within the gut histamine stimulates gastric parietal cells to secrete acid; released from mast cells when allergens bind to IgE-antibody complexes; there are four histamine receptors (H1–H4) all of which are GPCRs|
|monoamine||tryptophan||most abundantly expressed in enterochromaffin cells of the gut where it regulates motility, also found in the CNS and platelets; released from activated platelets where it stimulates further activation propagating role of platelet aggregation in coagulation; in the CNS 5-HT regulates mood, appetite, sleep, memory and learning; selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) used in the treatment of depression|
|monoamine||tyrosine||catecholamine neurotransmitter and hormone; binds to both α- and β-adrenergic receptors (GPCRs); produced in the adrenal medulla and some CNS cells; primary hormone of the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system; is a major regulator of metabolic processes in numerous tissues; regulates heart rate, induces vascoconstriction and bronchodilation|
|monoamine||tyrosine||catecholamine neurotransmitter and hormone; binds to both α- and β-adrenergic receptors (GPCRs); produced in CNS by sympathetic nerves; major neurotransmitter function is in regulation of cardiac chronotropic (rate) function; functions along with epinephrine in the fight-or-flight response; involved in adaptive thermogenesis in brown adipose tissue (BAT)|
|monoamine||tyrosine||within the CNS dopamine plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior such as feeding and drug-seeking behaviors; also involved in motor control; in the periphery dopamine regulates the release of several hormones such as insulin from the pancreas and norepinephrine from blood vessels; functions by binding to a family of dopaminergic receptors (GPCRs)|
|Anandamide||other||phospholipids via at least 2 pathways||an endocannabinoid, binds to the cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) with highest affinity for CB1; CB1 is most abundant receptor in the CNS; classic response to CB1 activation is stimulation of food intake; exerts peripheral effects on overall energy homeostasis|
|Adenosine||other||ATP||is an inhibitory neurotransmitter within the CNS, suppresses arousal thus promoting sleep; within the periphery adenosine exerts anti-inflammatory actions, induces bronchospasm in the lungs, and within the heart where it affects the cardiac conduciton system; adenosine binds to a family of adenosine receptors (GPCRs) identified as A1, A2A, A2B, and A3|
|ATP||other||as a neurotransmitter ATP is released from sympathetic, sensory and enteric nerves; binds to P2Y12 which is a member of the purinergic family of GPCRs (metabotropic receptors of which there are 12 genes in humans: P2Y1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14; P2Y12 is primarily expressed on the surface of platelets; also binds to the ionotropic family of purinergic receptors (P2X) which consists of seven members (P2X1–7); these receptors modulate synaptic transmission throughout the CNS, PNS, and autonomic nervous system; in the periphery the P2X receptors activate contractile activity of various muscle types|
|Nitric oxide, NO||gas||arginine||endothelial cells, phagocytic cells, CNS, gastrointestinal tract; binds to and activates soluble guanylate cyclase, oxidizes iron-containing proteins, nitrosylates protein sulfhydryl groups|
Synaptic transmission refers to the propagation of nerve impulses from one nerve cell to another. This occurs at a specialized cellular structure known as the synapse, a junction at which the axon of the presynaptic neuron terminates at some location upon the postsynaptic neuron. The end of a presynaptic axon, where it is juxtaposed to the postsynaptic neuron, is enlarged and forms a structure known as the terminal button. An axon can make contact anywhere along the second neuron: on the dendrites (an axodendritic synapse), the cell body (an axosomatic synapse) or the axons (an axo-axonal synapse).
Nerve impulses are transmitted at synapses by the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters. As a nerve impulse, or action potential, reaches the end of a presynaptic axon, molecules of neurotransmitter are released into the synaptic space. The neurotransmitters are a diverse group of chemical compounds ranging from simple amines such as dopamine and amino acids such as γ-aminobutyrate (GABA), to peptides such as the enkephalins. The mechanisms by which they elicit responses in both presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons are as diverse as the mechanisms employed by growth factor and cytokine receptors.
Glutamate synapse. Structure of a typical synapse showing the presynaptic terminal and the postsynaptic terminal for a typical glutamatergic neural connection. This example depicts a synapse which involves glutamate activation of the three classes of ionotropic glutamate receptors. Definitions of the receptors types can be found in the section below discussing the glutamate-glutamine cycle in the brain.back to the top
A different type of nerve transmission occurs when an axon terminates on a skeletal muscle fiber, at a specialized structure called the neuromuscular junction. An action potential occurring at this site is known as neuromuscular transmission. At a neuromuscular junction, the axon subdivides into numerous terminal buttons that reside within depressions formed in the motor end-plate. The particular transmitter in use at the neuromuscular junction is acetylcholine.back to the top
Once the molecules of neurotransmitter are released from a cell as the result of the firing of an action potential, they bind to specific receptors on the surface of the postsynaptic cell. In all cases in which these receptors have been cloned and characterized in detail, it has been shown that there are numerous subtypes of receptor for any given neurotransmitter. As well as being present on the surfaces of postsynaptic neurons, neurotransmitter receptors are found on presynaptic neurons. In general, presynaptic neuron receptors act to inhibit further release of neurotransmitter.
The vast majority of neurotransmitter receptors belong to a class of proteins known as the G-protein coupled receptors, GPCRs. Go to the Signal Transduction page for more information on theses receptors. The GPCRs are also called serpentine receptors because they exhibit a characteristic transmembrane structure: that is, it spans the cell membrane, not once but seven times. The link between neurotransmitters and intracellular signaling is carried out by association either with the receptor-associated G-protein, with protein kinases, or by the receptor itself in the form of a ligand-gated ion channel (for example, the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors). The receptors that are of the GPCR family are referred to as metabotropic receptors, whereas, the ligand-gated ion channel receptors are referred to as ionotropic receptors.
One additional characteristic of neurotransmitter receptors is that they are subject to ligand-induced desensitization. Receptor desensitization refers to the phenomenon whereby upon prolonged exposure ligand results in uncoupling of the receptor from its signaling cascade. A common means of receptor desensitization involves receptor phosphorylation by receptor-specific kinases. Following phosphorylation of the receptor there is increased affinity for inhibitory molecules that uncouple the interaction of receptor with its associated G-protein. One major class of these desensitizing inhibitors are the arrestins. Arrestins were first identified in studies of β-adrenergic receptor desensitization and so were called β-arrestins.back to the top
Within the CNS glutamate is the main excitatory neurotransmitter. Neurons that respond to glutamate are referred to as glutamatergic neurons. Postsynaptic glutamatergic neurons possess three distinct types of ionotropic receptors that bind glutamate released from presynaptic neurons. These ionotropic receptors have been identified on the basis of their binding affinities for certain substrates and are, thus referred to as the the kainate, 2-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA), N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, and the delta (δ) receptors. Each of these classes of glutamate receptor subunit form ligand-gated ion channels, thus the derivation of the term ionotropic. There are also multiple subtypes of each of these classes of ionotropic glutamate receptor subunits.
The AMPA receptor subunits are referred to as GluA1 (GluR1) through GluA4 (GluR4) and each is encoded by separate genes. Functional AMPA receptors consist of heterotetramers that are formed from dimers of GluA2 and dimers of either GluA1, GluA3, or GluA4. The GluA2 subunit of the receptor is responsible for regulating the permeability of the channel to calcium ions. The GluA2 mRNA is subject to RNA editing which alters the function of the calcium permeability character of the subunit. For details on the editing of the GluA2 mRNA go to the RNA Metabolism page. The AMPA receptors are found on most excitatory postsynaptic neurons where they mediate fast excitation. Indeed, AMPA receptors are responsible for the bulk of fast excitatory synaptic transmission throughout the CNS. The concept of fast synaptic transmission relates to the fact that the ion channel opens and closes quickly in response to ligand (e.g. glutamate) binding. The ion permeability of the AMPA receptors is controlled by the GluA2 subunit. AMPA receptors have low permeability to calcium ions even in the ligand-activated state and this is to prevent excitotoxicity in these neurons.
The NMDA receptor is generated from two separate subunit families. These subunit families are identified as GluN1 (also called NMDAR1) and GluN2. There are four GluN2 subunits (GluN2A–GluN2D; also NMDAR2A–NMDAR2D). The four different GluN2 subunits are encoded by distinct genes. Although there is a single gene encoding the GluN1 subunit, multiple isoforms of this subunit are generated through alternative splicing events. The functional NMDA receptor is composed of a heterotetramer with all forms containing the GluN1 subunit and one of the different GluN2 subunits. Unlike the other ionotropic glutamate receptors, the NMDA receptors are activated by simultaneous binding of glutamate and glycine. Glycine serves as a co-agonist and both amino acid neurotransmitters must bind in order for the receptor to be activated. Glycine binds to the GluN1 subunit while glutamate binds to the GluN2 subunit. Glutamate binding to NMDA receptors results in calcium influx into the postsynaptic cells leading to the activation of a number of signaling cascades. These signaling cascades can include activation of calcium/calmodulin-dependent kinase II (CaMKII) leading to phosphorylation of the GluA2 AMPA receptor subunit. This latter effect results in long-term potentiation (LTP). NMDA receptor activation also triggers PKC-dependent insertion of AMPA receptors into the synaptic membrane during LTP as well as activation of the kinases PI3K, Akt/PKB, and GSK3, each of which modulates LTP.
The kainate receptor subunits are known as GluK1 through GluK5 (formerly GluR5, GluR6, GluR7, KA1, and KA2). The GluK1–GluK3 subunits can form hetero- and homomeric receptor complexes. In addition, alternative splicing of the GluK1 and GluK2 mRNAs results in at least five distinct subtypes (GluK1a–GluK1c, GluK2a, GluK2b). Less is known about the physiological significance of the kainate receptors. One major role of the kainate receptors is in the regulation of synaptic plasticity. Another important function of the kainate receptors is in the regulation of the release of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. This function of the kainate receptors is due to their presence on presynaptic GABAergic neurons.
The delta (δ) glutamate receptors were identified as ionotropic glutamate receptors based upon amino acid sequence similarity to the other more well-characterized ionotropic glutamate receptors. However, these proteins do not form glutamate-gated functional ion channels either alone or in combination with any of the other ionotropic glutamate receptor proteins. Indeed, these proteins do not bind glutamate or any other excitatory amino acid receptor ligands. The GluD1 receptor (encoded by the GRID1 gene) is prominently expressed in inner ear hair cells and neurons of the hippocampus. The presentation of GluD1 in the inner ear indicates that it has a role in hearing. The GluD2 receptor (endcoded by the GRID2 gene) is expressed exclusively in the Purkinje cells of the cerebellum. GluD2 function is critical for the development of neuronal circuits and functions that includes long-term depression (LTD), learning and memory.
Within the CNS glutamatergic neurons are responsible for the mediation of many vital processes such as the encoding of information, the formation and retrieval of memories, spatial recognition and the maintenance of consciousness. Excessive excitation of glutamate receptors has been associated with the pathophysiology of hypoxic injury, hypoglycemia, stroke and epilepsy.
Glutamate can also bind to another class of receptor termed the metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs; where the small m refers to metabotropic). There are eight known metabotropic glutamate receptors identified as mGluR1–mGluR8. Unlike the ionotropic receptors, the mGluRs are members of the G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) family. The mGluRs can be divided into three distinct subclasses based upon sequence similarities and receptor associated G-protein. Group I mGluRs include mGluR1 and mGluR5, both of which are coupled to Gq type G-proteins and upon activation trigger increased production of DAG and IP3. Group II is composed of mGluR2 and mGluR3. Group III is composed of mGluR4, mGluR6, mGluR7, and mGluR8. Both group II and III mGluRs activate an associated Gi type G-protein resulting in decreased production of cAMP. The mGluRs are primarily expressed on neurons and glial cells in close proximity to the synaptic cleft. Within the CNS, mGluRs modulate the neurotransmitter effects of glutamate as well as a variety of other neurotransmitters. In addition to the CNS, mGluRs have a widespread distribution in the periphery. Given their wide pattern of expression, diverse roles for mGluRs have been suggested. Some of these processes include control of hormone production in the adrenal gland and pancreas, regulation of mineralization in the developing cartilage, modulation of cytokine production by lymphocytes, directing the state of differentiation in embryonic stem cells, and modulation of secretory functions within the gastrointestinal tract.
|Gene Symbol||Type / Class||Functions / Comments|
|mGluR1||GRM1||metabotropic, group I family||GPCR coupled to Gq-type G-protein; primarily a post-synaptic receptor; involved in nerve transduction events related to long-term potentiation (LTP) and long-term depression (LTD); increases NMDA receptor activity|
|mGluR2||GRM2||metabotropic, group II family||GPCR coupled to Gi-type G-protein; primarily a pre-synaptic receptor; involved in synaptic plasticity by exerting transient suppression of synaptic transmission occurring in response to receptor activation, induces persistent long-term depression (LTD), and mediates inhibition of long-term potentiation (LTP)|
|mGluR3||GRM3||metabotropic, group II family||GPCR coupled to Gi-type G-protein; primarily a pre-synaptic receptor; polymorphisms in GRM3 gene associated with psychosis and schizophrenia; modulates expression of glutamate transporters; affects NMDA receptor activity|
|mGluR4||GRM4||metabotropic, group III family||GPCR coupled to Gi-type G-protein; primarily a pre-synaptic receptor; depresses excitatory transmission by preventing glutamate release|
|mGluR5||GRM5||metabotropic, group I family||GPCR coupled to Gq-type G-protein; primarily a post-synaptic receptor; critical receptor involved in inhibitory learning processes such as drug-related self-administration learning; reduced signaling from this receptor can reverse fragile X phenotypes|
|mGluR6||GRM6||metabotropic, group III family||GPCR coupled to Gi-type G-protein; primarily a pre-synaptic receptor; involved in a photoreceptor-independent form of light adaptation within the retina; found on the photoreceptor–On bipolar cell synapse|
|mGluR7||GRM7||metabotropic, group III family||GPCR coupled to Gi-type G-protein; most widely distributed pre-synaptic mGluR; found at a wide range of synapses postulated to be critical for both normal CNS function and several human disorders; is a key regulator in shaping synaptic responses at glutamatergic synapses as well as in regulating critical aspects of inhibitory GABAergic transmission|
|mGluR8||GRM8||metabotropic, group III family||GPCR coupled to Gi-type G-protein; primarily a pre-synaptic receptor; involved in anxiety by depressing excitatory synaptic transmission in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST)|
|GluA1 (GluR1)||GRIA1||ionotropic: AMPA||responsible for the bulk of fast excitatory synaptic transmission throughout the CNS|
|GluA2 (GluR2)||GRIA2||ionotropic, AMPA||controls the Ca2+ permeability of the AMPA receptor channels; RNA editing controls the permeability by altering a single amino acid (the Q/R site) in the second transmembrane domain (TMII) of the protein, if unedited the Q residue allows Ca2+ permeability whereas the edited amino acid (R) does not; almost all the CNS GluA2 is edited|
|GluA3 (GluR3)||GRIA3||ionotropic, AMPA||responsible for the bulk of fast excitatory synaptic transmission throughout the CNS|
|GluA4 (GluR4)||GRIA4||ionotropic, AMPA||responsible for the bulk of fast excitatory synaptic transmission throughout the CNS|
|GluK1 (GluR5)||GRIK1||ionotropic, Kainate||three splice variants|
|GluK2 (GluR6)||GRIK2||ionotropic, Kainate||two splice variants|
|GluK3 (GluR7)||GRIK3||ionotropic, Kainate|
|GluK4 (KA1)||GRIK4||ionotropic, Kainate||expressed almost exclusively in the hippocampus|
|GluK5 (KA2)||GRIK5||ionotropic, Kainate||protein retained within the ER unless assembled into a complex with either GluK1, GluK2, or GluK3|
|GluN1 (NR1, NMDAR1)||GRIN1||ionotropic, NMDA||functional NMDA receptors requires simultaneous binding of both glutamate and glycine; GluN1 provides the glycine-binding site as does the GluN3 subunits; receptors function as a modulators of synaptic response and are involved in co-incidence detection (bidirectional current flow at a synapse)|
|GluN2A (NR2A, NMDAR2A)||GRIN2A||ionotropic, NMDA||functional NMDA receptors requires simultaneous binding of both glutamate and glycine; the GluN2 subunits provide the glutamate-binding sites; receptors function as a modulators of synaptic response and are involved in co-incidence detection (bidirectional current flow at a synapse)|
|GluN2B (NR2B, NMDAR2B)||GRIN2B||ionotropic, NMDA||functional NMDA receptors requires simultaneous binding of both glutamate and glycine; the GluN2 subunits provide the glutamate-binding sites; receptors function as a modulators of synaptic response and are involved in co-incidence detection (bidirectional current flow at a synapse)|
|GluN2C (NR2C, NMDAR2C)||GRIN2C||ionotropic, NMDA||functional NMDA receptors requires simultaneous binding of both glutamate and glycine; the GluN2 subunits provide the glutamate-binding sites; receptors function as a modulators of synaptic response and are involved in co-incidence detection (bidirectional current flow at a synapse)|
|GluN2D (NR2D, NMDAR2D)||GRIN2D||ionotropic, NMDA|
|GluN3A (NR3A, NMDAR3A)||GRIN3A||ionotropic, NMDA||functional NMDA receptors requires simultaneous binding of both glutamate and glycine; GluN3 subunits provide the glycine-binding sites as does the GluN1 subunit; receptors function as a modulators of synaptic response and are involved in co-incidence detection (bidirectional current flow at a synapse)|
|GluN3B (NR3B, NMDAR3B)||GRIN3B||ionotropic, NMDA||functional NMDA receptors requires simultaneous binding of both glutamate and glycine; GluN3 subunits provide the glycine-binding sites as does the GluN1 subunit; receptors function as a modulators of synaptic response and are involved in co-incidence detection (bidirectional current flow at a synapse)|
Within the CNS there is an interaction between the cerebral blood flow, neurons, and the protective astrocytes that regulates the metabolism of glutamate, glutamine, and ammonia. This process is referred to as the glutamate-glutamine cycle and it is a critical metabolic process central to overall brain glutamate metabolism. Using presynaptic neurons as the starting point, the cycle begins with the release of glutamate from presynaptic secretory vesicles in response to the propagation of a nerve impulse along the axon. The release of glutamate is a Ca2+-dependent process that involves fusion of glutamate containing presynaptic vesicles with the neuronal membrane. Following release of the glutamate into the synapse it must be rapidly removed to prevent over excitation of the postsynaptic neurons. Synaptic glutamate is removed by three distinct process. It can be taken up into the postsynaptic cell, it can undergo reuptake into the presynaptic cell from which it was released or it can be taken up by a third non-neuronal cell, namely astrocytes. Postsynaptic neurons remove little glutamate from the synapse and although there is active reuptake into presynaptic neurons the latter process is less important than transport into astrocytes. The membrane potential of astrocytes is much lower than that of neuronal membranes and this favors the uptake of glutamate by the astrocyte. Glutamate uptake by astrocytes is mediated by Na+-independent and Na+-dependent systems. The Na+-dependent systems have high affinity for glutamate and are the predominant glutamate uptake mechanism in the central nervous system. There are two distinct astrocytic Na+-dependent glutamate transporters identified as EAAT1 (for Excitatory Amino Acid Transporter 1; also called GLAST) and EAAT2 (also called GLT-1).
Brain glutamate-glutamine cycle. Ammonium ion (NH4+) in the blood is taken up by astrocytes and incorporated into glutamate via glutamine synthetase. The glutamine then is transported to presynaptic neurons via SLC38A7 (also called sodium-coupled neutral amino acid transporter 7, SNAT7). Within the presynaptic neuron glutamate is formed from the glutamine via the action of glutaminase. The glutamate is packaged in secretory vesicles for release following activation of an action potential. Glutamate in the synaptic cleft can be taken up by astrocytes via the EAAT1 and EAAT2 transporters (excitatory amino acid transporters 1 and 2; also known as glial high affinity glutamte transporters). Within the astrocyte the glutamate is converted back to glutamine. Some of the astrocyte glutamine can be transported into the blood via the action of the transporter SLC38A3 (also called sodium-coupled neutral amino acid transporter 3, SNAT3).
Following uptake of glutamate, astrocytes have the ability to dispose of the amino acid via export into the blood though capillaries that contact the foot processes of the astrocytes. The problem with glutamate disposal via this mechanism is that it would eventually result in a net loss of carbon and nitrogen from the CNS. In fact, the outcome of astrocytic glutamate uptake is its conversion to glutamine. Glutamine thus serves as a "reservoir" for glutamate but in the form of a non-neuroactive compound. Release of glutamine from astrocytes allows neurons to derive glutamate from this parent compound. Astrocytes readily convert glutamate to glutamine via the glutamine synthetase catalyzed reaction as this microsomal enzyme is abundant in these cells. Indeed, histochemical data demonstrate that the glia are essentially the only cells of the CNS that carry out the glutamine synthetase reaction. The ammonia that is used to generate glutamine is derived from either the blood or from metabolic processes occurring in the brain.
Like the uptake of glutamate by astrocytes, neuronal glutamine uptake proceeds via both Na+-dependent and Na+-independent mechanisms. The major glutamine transporter in both excitatory and inhibitory neurons is the system N neutral amino acid transporter SLC38A7 (also called SNAT7). The predominant metabolic fate of the glutamine taken up by neurons is hydrolysis to glutamate and ammonia via the action of the mitochondrial enzyme, phosphate-dependent glutaminase (PAG). The inorganic phosphate (Pi) necessary for this reaction is primarily derived from the hydrolysis of ATP and its function is to lower the KM of the enzyme for glutamine. During depolarization there is a sudden increase in energy consumption. The hydrolysis of ATP to ADP and Pi thus favors the concomitant hydrolysis of glutamine to glutamate via the resulting increased Pi. Because there is a need to replenish the ATP lost during neuronal depolarization, metabolic reactions that generate ATP must increase. It has been found that not all neuronal glutamate derived from glutamine is utilized to replenish the neurotransmitter pool. A portion of the glutamate can be oxidized within the nerve cells following transamination. The principle transamination reaction involves aspartate aminotransferase (AST) and yields α-ketoglutarate (2-oxoglutarate) which is a substrate in the TCA cycle. Glutamine, therefore, is not simply a precursor to neuronal glutamate but a potential fuel, which, like glucose, supports neuronal energy requirements.
Glutamate, released as a neurotransmitter, is taken up by astrocytes, converted to glutamine, released back to neurons where it is then converted back to glutamate represents the complete glutamate-glutamine cycle. The significance of this cycle to brain glutamate handling is that it promotes several critical processes of CNS function. Glutamate is rapidly removed from the synapse by astrocytic uptake thereby preventing over-excitation of the postsynaptic neuron. Within the astrocyte glutamate is converted to glutamine which is, in effect, a non-neuroactive compound that can be transported back to the neurons. The uptake of glutamine by neurons provides a mechanism for the regeneration of glutamate which is augmented by the generation of Pi as a result of ATP consumption during depolarization. Since the neurons also need to regenerate the lost ATP, the glutamate can serve as a carbon skeleton for oxidation in the TCA cycle. Lastly, but significantly, the incorporation of ammonia into glutamate in the astrocyte serves as a mechanism to buffer brain ammonia.back to the top
Several amino acids have distinct excitatory or inhibitory effects upon the nervous system. The amino acid derivative, γ-aminobutyrate (GABA; also called 4-aminobutyrate) is a major inhibitor of presynaptic transmission in the CNS, and also in the retina. Neurons that secrete GABA are termed GABAergic.
GABA cannot cross the blood-brain-barrier and as such must be synthesized within neurons in the CNS. The synthesis of GABA in the brain occurs via a metabolic pathway referred to as the GABA shunt. Glucose is the principal precursor for GABA production via its conversion to α-ketoglutarate in the TCA cycle. Within the context of the GABA shunt the α-ketoglutarate is transaminated to glutamate by GABA α-oxoglutarate transaminase (GABA-T). Glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD) catalyzes the decarboxylation of glutamic acid to form GABA. There are two GAD genes in humans identified as GAD1 and GAD2. The GAD isoforms produced by these two genes are identified as GAD67 (GAD1 gene: GAD67) and GAD65 (GAD2 gene: GAD65) which is reflective of their molecular weights. Both the GAD1 and GAD2 genes are expressed in the brain and GAD2 expression also occurs in the pancreas. The activity of GAD requires pyridoxal phosphate (PLP) as a cofactor. PLP is generated from the B6 vitamins (pyridoxine, pyridoxal, and pyridoxamine) through the action of pyridoxal kinase. Pyridoxal kinase itself requires zinc for activation. A deficiency in zinc or defects in pyridoxal kinase can lead to seizure disorders, particularly in seizure-prone pre-eclamptic patients (hypertensive condition in late pregnancy). The presence of anti-GAD antibodies (both anti-GAD65 and anti-GAD67) is a strong predictor of the future development of type 1 diabetes in high-risk populations.
GABA exerts its effects by binding to two distinct receptors, GABA-A (GABAA) and GABA-B (GABAB). This family includes the nicotinic ACh receptors, glycine receptors, and the 5-HT3 receptor. GABA-A receptors belong to a large family of "Cys-loop" evolutionarily related and structurally similar ligand-gated ion channels. The GABA-A receptors are chloride channels that in response to GABA binding increases chloride influx into the neuron. The GABA-B receptors are potassium channels that when activated by GABA leads to potassium efflux from the cell. The anxiolytic drugs of the benzodiazepine family exert their soothing effects by potentiating the responses of GABA-A receptors to GABA binding.
Functional GABA-A receptors are generated by the combination of a wide array of different subunits. A total of 19 GABA-A receptor subunit genes have been identified in humans that code for α (alpha), β (beta), γ (gamma), δ (delta), ε (epsilon), π (pi), θ (theta), and ρ (rho). The overall diversity of GABA-A receptors is further increased as several of theses genes undergo alternative splicing. The complexity of the diverse array of molecular compositions of the GABA-A receptors has important functional and clinical consequences as they determine the properties and pharmacological modulations of a given receptor complex. In addition, zinc ions are known to regulate GABA-A receptor activity via inhibition of the receptor through an allosteric mechanism that is critically dependent on the receptor subunit composition. The GABRG3 (γ3 subunit gene) encoded protein is critical to this zinc-mediated regulation. Although the minimal requirement to produce a functional GABA-gated ion channel is the inclusion of both α and β subunits, the most common type in the brain is a heteropentameric complex composed of two α subunits, two β subunits, and a γ subunit (α2β2γ). The GABA-A receptors bind two molecules of GABA and in the heteropentameric receptors this binding site is created by the interface between the α and β subunits.
The GABA-Aρ subunits do not form heteromeric complexes with other GABA-A receptors subunits but only form homomeric receptor complexes. The GABA-Aρ receptors were formerly referred to as the GABA-C receptors.
The anxiolytic/sedative effects of the barbiturates and benzodiazepines are exerted via their binding to subunits of the GABA-A receptors. Benzodiazepines bind to a site on the GABA-A receptor created by the association of the gamma (γ) subunit and one of the the alpha (α) subunits. There are two distinct subtypes of benzodiazepine receptors termed BZ1 (BZ1) and BZ2 (BZ2). The BZ1 receptor is formed by the interaction of γ and α1 subunits, whereas the BZ2 receptors is formed by the interaction of the γ and α2, α3 or α5 subunits. The receptor for the barbiturates is the beta (β) subunit of the GABA-A receptor. When benzodiazepines bind to the GABA-A receptor they potentiate the actions of GABA and require the presence of GABA in order for activation of the ion channel. Barbiturates can induce GABA-A channel opening in the absence of GABA when administered at high dose and as a result they can be lethal due to the level of CNS suppression. The potential for lethal toxicity of a benzodiazepine requires an extremely large dose. This difference in toxicity between barbiturates and benzodiazepines is the major reason barbiturates are not often used clinically any longer.
Under physiological conditions the binding of GABA to any of the GABA-A receptors leads to membrane hyperpolarization and a reduction of action potential firing. However, studies have also demonstrated the GABA-A activation can result in membrane reversal potential that is close to, or even at a more depolarized potential than the resting membrane potential at a synapse. This results in a membrane depolarization referred to as shunting inhibition. Shunting inhibition is also called divisive inhibition and defines a form of post-synaptic potential inhibition. The term shunting is used because the synaptic conductance short-circuits currents that are generated at adjacent excitatory synapses. If a shunting inhibitory synapse is activated, the amplitude of subsequent excitatory postsynaptic potentials (EPSPs) is reduced. The major effect of GABA-A receptor activation is reduced dendritic excitatory glutamatergic responses as a consequence of a local increase in conductance across the plasma membrane. In addition to shunting inhibition, the polarity of GABA-A receptor-mediated responses can change during different physiological or pathological conditions. For example, GABA triggers excitation during the day and inhibition during the night within neural circuits of the suprachiasmatic nucleus. Also, the repeated activation of GABA-A receptors can lead to a switch from a hyperpolarizing to depolarizing direction and can, thus, enhance cell firing. The activation of GABA-A receptors results in both phasic inhibitory postsynaptic currents (IPSCs) and tonic currents. The GABA-A-induced tonic current result from GABA acting on extrasynaptic receptors composed of a different subunit composition and therefore, different pharmacological activity compared with the synaptic receptors.
|Receptor Subunit||Gene Symbol||Functions / Comments|
|GABA-A alpha 1 (α1)||GABRA1||GABRA1 protein is phosphorylated in a glycolysis-dependent reaction involving a kinase activity associated with the enzyme glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAPDH), GAPDH-mediated phosphorylation maintains functionality of the protein; this process implicates a link between regional cerebral glucose metabolism and GABAergic currents since the mechanism depends on locally produced glycolytic ATP and GAPDH activity; cortical tissue isolated from epileptic patients contains GABRA1 subunits in a reduced phosphorylation state compared to tissue from non-epileptic individuals; mutations in the GABRA1 gene associated with susceptibility to juvenile myoclonic epilepsy|
|GABA-A alpha 2 (α2)||GABRA2||polymorphisms in the GABRA2 gene associated with susceptibility to alcohol dependence; pharmacologic-specific activation of the GABA-A α2 subunit is highly effective against inflammatory and neuropathic pain without sedation typical of benzodiazepine activation of the α1 subunit|
|GABA-A alpha 3 (α3)||GABRA3||similar to effects at the α2 subunit, pharmacologic-specific activation of the GABA-A α3 subunit is highly effective against inflammatory and neuropathic pain without sedation typical of benzodiazepine activation of the α1 subunit|
|GABA-A alpha 4 (α4)||GABRA4||pentameric GABA-A receptors that contain the α4 subunit are insensitive to benzodiazepines; shunting inhibition involving GABA-A receptor complexes that contain the α4 subunit reduces NMDA receptor activation leading to impaired long-term potentiation, LTP|
|GABA-A alpha 5 (α5)||GABRA5||variable numbers of a partial duplication in the GABRA5 gene are found in different individuals; the GABRA5 gene is located within the chromosome 15 imprinted region found deleted in Prader-Willi and Angelman syndromes; the duplication number is higher in individuals with cytogenetically detectable deletions in the 15q region|
|GABA-A alpha 6 (α6)||GABRA6||cerebellar motor control is likely to be a a distinct behavioral function associated with GABA-A receptors that contain the α6 subunit; disruption in expression of the GABRA6 gene leads to an associated loss of expression from the GABRD gene|
|GABA-A beta 1 (β1)||GABRB1|
|GABA-A beta 2 (β2)||GABRB2|
|GABA-A beta 3 (β3)||GABRB3||the GABRA3 gene is located within the chromosome 15 imprinted region found deleted in Prader-Willi and Angelman syndromes; deletion of GABRB3 is found in both disorders and it is, therefore, suggested that loss of the β3 subunit plays a role in the pathogenesis of these syndromes|
|GABA-A gamma 1 (γ1)||GABRG1||both the γ1 and γ2 subunits are important in the effects of the benzodiazepines on GABA-A receptor function;|
|GABA-A gamma 2 (γ2)||GABRG2||both the γ1 and γ2 subunits are important in the effects of the benzodiazepines on GABA-A receptor function; polymorphisms in the GABRG2 gene are associated with susceptibility to epilepsy and febrile seizures; presence of the γ2 subunit results in a low sensitivity of GABA-A receptors to allosteric regulation by zinc ion|
|GABA-A gamma 3 (γ3)||GABRG3||the γ3 subunit is critical to the allosteric regulation of GABA-A receptors by zinc ions whereas presence of the γ2 subunit results in a low sensitivity to zinc ion regulation|
|GABA-A delta (δ)||GABRD||polymorphisms in the GABRD gene are associated with susceptibility to epilepsy and febrile seizures; three variants of the GABRD protein are produced in the brain identified as GABRD-1A, -1B, and -1C; the δ subunit is involved in the tonic (continuous) currents elicited by GABA-A receptors which modifies the spatial and temporal integration of excitatory neurotransmission|
|GABA-A epsilon (ε)||GABRE||alternative splicing of the GABRE mRNA occurs at several positions depending upon the tissue of expression|
|GABA-A pi (π)||GABRP||expressed at highest levels in the uterus; presence of the π subunit in pentameric GABA-A receptors modifies the receptor sensitivity to steroidogenic compounds|
|GABA-A theta (θ)||GABRQ|
|GABA-A rho 1 (ρ1)||GABRR1||protein contains a chloride-sensitive anion channel|
|GABA-A rho 2 (ρ2)||GABRR2|
|GABA-A rho 3 (ρ3)||GABRR3|
GABA also acts on GABA-B receptors that are members of the GPCR family of receptors. There are two GABA-B receptors subunits identified as GABA-B1 (GABAB1) and GABA-B2 (GABAB2). These two subunits heterodimerize to form the functional receptor that can be found on both pre- and post-synaptic membranes. Neither receptor subunit is functional as a GABA receptor independently. The GABA-B receptors are coupled to G-proteins of the Gi type. The G-protein is linked to potassium channels (GIRK or Kir3) and activation of the G-protein results in increased conductance of the associated channel. GABA-B receptor activation on post-synaptic membranes generally leads to activation of the inwardly rectifying potassium channels which underlies the late phase of inhibitory postsynaptic potentials (IPSPs). Activation of pre-synaptic GABA-B receptors decreases neurotransmitter release by inhibiting voltage-activated Ca2+ channels of the N or P/Q types. Activation of GABA-B receptors also modulates the production of cAMP. This function leads to a wide range of actions on ion channels as well as other proteins that are targets of PKA. The cAMP modulation by GABA-B receptors effects modulation of both neuronal and synaptic functions.back to the top
The anxiolytic/sedative effects of the barbiturates and benzodiazepines are exerted via their binding to subunits of the GABA-A receptors. Benzodiazepines bind to a site on the GABA-A receptor created by the association of the gamma (γ) subunit and one of the the alpha (α) subunits. There are two distinct subtypes of benzodiazepine receptors termed BZ1 (BZ1) and BZ2 (BZ2). The BZ1 receptor is formed by the interaction of γ and α1 subunits, whereas the BZ2 receptors is formed by the interaction of the γ and α2, α3 or α5 subunits. The receptor for the barbiturates is the beta (β) subunit of the GABA-A receptor. When benzodiazepines bind to the GABA-A receptor they potentiate the actions of GABA and require the presence of GABA in order for activation of the ion channel. Barbiturates can induce GABA-A channel opening in the absence of GABA when administered at high dose and as a result they can be lethal due to the level of CNS suppression. The potential for lethal toxicity of a benzodiazepine requires an extremely large dose. This difference in toxicity between barbiturates and benzodiazepines is the major reason barbiturates are not often used clinically any longer. The significance of the BZ1 receptor isoform is that it is solely involved in mediating the induction of sleep. This fact has led to the development of several classes of drug that specifically target this GABA-A receptor isoform, and more precisely, the site on the GABA-A complex that forms the BZ1 binding site. The non-benzodiazepine drug, zolpidem (Ambien®), exerts its hypnotic sleep inducing effects due to near selective binding to the BZ1 site. Another non-benzodiazepine drug used for its hypnotic sleep inducing effect is eszopiclone (Lunesta®). Although the precise mechanism of action of eszopiclone is not fully understood, it is believed to function similarly to zolpidem in binding to the BZ1 receptor site on GABA-A receptor isoforms.back to the top
Acetylcholine (ACh) is a simple molecule synthesized from choline and acetyl-CoA through the action of choline acetyltransferase. Neurons that synthesize and release ACh are termed cholinergic neurons. When an action potential reaches the terminal button of a presynaptic neuron a voltage-gated calcium channel is opened. The influx of calcium ions, Ca2+, stimulates the exocytosis of presynaptic vesicles containing ACh, which is thereby released into the synaptic cleft. Once released, ACh must be removed rapidly in order to allow repolarization to take place; this step, hydrolysis, is carried out by the enzyme, acetylcholinesterase. The acetylcholinesterase found at nerve endings is anchored to the plasma membrane through a glycolipid.
Two main classes of ACh receptors have been identified on the basis of their responsiveness to the toadstool alkaloid muscarine and to nicotine, respectively. The muscarinic receptors (mAChRs) and the nicotinic receptors (nAChRs). The muscarinic receptors are G-protein coupled receptors (GPCR) and are also referred to as metabotropic receptors. The nicotinic receptors are ligand-gated ion channels which are also referred to as ionotropic receptors. Both receptor classes are abundant in the human brain.
The are five subtypes of muscarinic receptors, identified as M1–M5, that are classified based upon pharmacological activity. The M1, M3, and M5 muscarinic receptors are coupled to the Gq type G-proteins that activate PLCβ. The M2 and M4 receptors are coupled to Gs type G-proteins that activate adenylate cyclase. Muscarinic receptor desensitization occurs in response to phosphorylation of the receptors by kinases that are members of the G-protein coupled receptor kinase (GRK) family. For example the M2 receptor is phosphorylated by GRK2 (originally called β-adrenergic receptor kinase-1, βARK1). More information on the GRK family can be found in the Signal Transduction page.
|Receptor Nomenclature||Expression Profile||Functions / Comments|
|M1 (M1)||predominantly expressed in the forebrain, including the cerebral cortex, hippocampus and corpus striatum; lungs||coupled to a Gq/11-type G-protein; M1 receptor agonists cause epileptic seizures; loss of M1 receptor function results in increased dopamine release from striatum, suggests that pharmacological blockade of this receptor may be useful in Parkinson disease|
|M2 (M2)||predominant receptor in heart tissue; lungs||coupled to a Gi-type G-protein; activates K+-channel as well as decreasing cAMP; M2 receptors agonists induce analgesia with much less risk of addiction relative to opioid analgesics; M2 receptor responsible for cholinergic deceleration of cardiac rate|
|M3 (M3)||broadly expressed throughout the brain at low levels; expressed in periphery in glandular tissues and smooth muscle cells; expressed on parietal cells of stomach||coupled to a Gq/11-type G-protein; important for contraction of smooth muscle in the urinary bladder, ileum, stomach fundus, trachea and gallbladder; ACh binding to parietal cell M3 receptors induces mobilization of proton (H+) pump migration to lumenal membrane for gastric acid production in stomach|
|M4 (M4)||abundantly expressed in striatum; lungs||coupled to a Gi-type G-protein; activates K+-channel as well as decreasing cAMP; locomotor activity increased by pharmacologic blockade of the M4 receptor|
|M5 (M5)||abundantly expressed in dopamine-containing neurons of the substantia nigra par compacta; lungs||coupled to a Gq/11-type G-protein|
Nicotinic receptors are divided into those found at neuromuscular junctions and those found at neuronal synapses. The nicotinic receptors are composed of five types of subunits which are found in different combinations in different types of nicotinic receptors. There are 16 known nAChR subunit genes in the human genome that encode the alpha (α1–α7, α9, and α10), beta (β1–β4), delta (δ), epsilon (ε), and gamma (γ) subunits. The alpha subunit genes are designated CHRNA1–CHRNA7, CHRNA9, and CHRNA10. The beta genes are CHRNB1–4, while the delta, gamma, and epsilon genes are CHRND, CHRNG, and CHRNE, respectively. Regardless of subunit composition or cellular location, all of the nAChRs are pentameric receptors. All of the nAChRs are divided into two broad categories: neuromuscular-type and neuronal-type. There are two major types of neuromuscular nicotinic receptors. One is composed of α1, β1, δ, and ε subunits (referred to as the embryonic form) while the other is composed of α1, β1, δ, and γ (referred to as the adult form). There are five types of neuronal receptors, with one of the latter type also found in epithelial tissues. The neuronal nAChRs are only composed of various α and β subunits making up the pentameric receptor. For example, the ganglion nAChR is comprised of an (α3)2(β4)3 pentameric arrangement. The activation of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors by the binding of ACh leads to an influx of Na+ into the cell and an efflux of K+, resulting in a depolarization of the postsynaptic neuron and the initiation of a new action potential. Desensitization of the nAChRs occurs as a result of phosphorylation by either PKA or PKC.back to the top
Numerous compounds have been identified that act as either agonists or antagonists of cholinergic neurons. The principal action of cholinergic agonists is the excitation or inhibition of autonomic effector cells that are innervated by postganglionic parasympathetic neurons and as such are referred to as parasympathomimetic agents. The cholinergic agonists include choline esters (such as ACh itself) as well as protein- or alkaloid-based compounds. Several naturally occurring compounds have been shown to affect cholinergic neurons, either positively or negatively.
The responses of cholinergic neurons can also be enhanced by administration of cholinesterase (ChE) inhibitors. ChE inhibitors have been used as components of nerve gases but also have significant medical application in the treatment of disorders such as glaucoma and myasthenia gravis as well as in terminating the effects of neuromuscular blocking agents such as atropine.
|Source of Compound||Mode of Action|
|Nicotine||alkaloid prevalent in the tobacco plant||activates nicotinic class of ACh receptors, locks the channel open|
|Muscarine||alkaloid produced by Amanita muscaria mushrooms||activates muscarinic class of ACh receptors|
|α-Latrotoxin||protein produced by the black widow spider||induces massive ACh release, possibly by acting as a Ca2+ ionophore|
|atropine (and related compound Scopolamine)||alkaloid produced by the deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna||blocks ACh actions only at muscarinic receptors|
|Botulinus toxin||eight proteins produced by Clostridium botulinum||inhibits the release of ACh|
|α-Bungarotoxin||protein produced by Bungarus genus of snakes||prevents ACh receptor channel opening|
|d-Tubocurarine||active ingredient of curare||prevents ACh receptor channel opening at motor end-plate|
The neurotransmitters and receptors of the parasympathetic nervous system are those of the cholinergic family. The principal neurotransmitter is acetylcholine (ACh) and the receptors are the muscarinic acetylcholine receptors M2 and M3. For example, the primary vascular response to ACh binding to M3 receptors on endothelial cells is the activation of nitric oxide synthase (NOS) and the production of nitric oxide (NO). However, it is important to note that the endothelial M3 receptor is not innervated by cholinergic nerve fibers, but responds to the binding of circulating ACh. Production of NO results in relaxation of the smooth muscle cells leading to vasodilation. Nicotinic ACh receptors are located postsynaptically in all autonomic ganglia and at the neuromuscular junction (NMJ). At the NMJ, nicotinic receptors function as the excitatory receptor for the postsynaptic cell.
As pointed out in the introduction to this page, neurotransmission within the sympathetic and parasympathetic ganglia involves the release of ACh from preganglionic efferent nerves. Once released, the ACh then binds to nicotinic receptors in the membrane of the cell bodies of the postganglionic efferent nerves. Ganglionic blockers are drugs that function by inhibiting autonomic activity via interference with the transmission of nerve impulses within autonomic ganglia. Therefore, ganglionic blockers reduce sympathetic outflow. With respect to cardiac tissue, this results in decreased cardiac output due to both decreased chronotropic (heart rate) and inotropic (contraction strength) activity. Ganglionic blockers also lead to reduced sympathetic output to the vasculature resulting in decreased sympathetic vascular tone. This latter effect causes vasodilation and reduced systemic vascular resistance resulting in decreased arterial pressure. It is important to note that parasympathetic nerve transmission (outflow) is also reduced by ganglionic blocking drugs. For this reason, as well as the development of more highly selective drugs for the treatment of hypertension, ganglionic blockers (e.g. mecamylamine and hexamethonium) are not commonly used any longer in the treatment of hypertension.back to the top
The principal catecholamines are norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine. These compounds are formed from phenylalanine and tyrosine. Tyrosine is produced in the liver from phenylalanine through the action of phenylalanine hydroxylase. The tyrosine is then transported to catecholamine-secreting neurons where a series of reactions convert it to dopamine, to norepinephrine and finally to epinephrine (see also Specialized Products of Amino Acids).
Catecholamines exhibit peripheral nervous system excitatory and inhibitory effects as well as actions in the CNS such as respiratory stimulation and an increase in psychomotor activity. The excitatory effects are exerted upon smooth muscle cells of the vessels that supply blood to the skin and mucous membranes. Cardiac function is also subject to excitatory effects, which lead to an increase in heart rate and in the force of contraction. Inhibitory effects, by contrast, are exerted upon smooth muscle cells in the wall of the gut, the bronchial tree of the lungs, and the vessels that supply blood to skeletal muscle.
In addition to their effects as neurotransmitters, norepinephrine and epinephrine can influence the rate of metabolism. This influence works both by modulating endocrine function such as insulin secretion and by increasing the rate of glycogenolysis and fatty acid mobilization.
The catecholamines bind to two different classes of receptors termed the α- and β-adrenergic receptors. The catecholamines therefore are also known as adrenergic neurotransmitters; neurons that secrete them are adrenergic neurons. Norepinephrine-secreting neurons are noradrenergic. Some of the norepinephrine released from presynaptic noradrenergic neurons is recycled in the presynaptic neuron by a reuptake mechanism.
The actions of norepinephrine and epinephrine are exerted via receptor-mediated signal transduction events. There are three distinct types of adrenergic receptors: α1, α2, β. Within each class of adrenergic receptor there are several sub-classes. The α1 class contains the α1A, α1B, and α1D receptors. The α1 receptor class are coupled to Gq-type G-proteins that activate PLCβ resulting in increases in IP3 and DAG release from membrane PIP2. The α2 class contains the α2A, α2B, and α2C receptors. The α2 class of adrenergic receptors are coupled to Gi-type G-proteins that inhibit the activation of adenylate cyclase and therefore, activation results in reductions in cAMP levels. The β class of receptors is composed of three subtypes: β1, β2, and β3 each of which couple to Gs-type G-proteins resulting in activation of adenylate cyclase and increases in cAMP with concomitant activation of PKA.
Dopamine binds to dopaminergic receptors identified as D-type receptors and there are four subclasses identified as D1, D2, D4, and D5. Activation of the dopaminergic receptors results in activation of adenylate cyclase (D1 and D5) or inhibition of adenylate cyclase (D2 and D4).
|Receptor Type||Expression Profile||Functions / Comments|
|α1||predominates in heart, blood vessels, and kidneys, also expressed in adipose tissue||three subtypes: α1A, α1B, α1D; coupled to Gq-type G-proteins, vasoconstrictor for coronary arteries and veins, decreases GI smooth muscle cell motility, induces contraction of smooth muscle in uterus, urethral sphincter, vas deferens, and ureter, modulates glycolysis and gluconeogenesis|
|α2||central nervous system (widely distributed); vessels, adipose tissue, kidneys, and platelets||three subtypes: α2A, α2B, α2C; coupled to Gi-type G-proteins, acts within the CNS to decrease blood pressure and exert bradycardic effects, exerts a hypothermic effect, arterial and venous vasoconstriction, inhibits insulin release and stimulates glucagon secretion, modulates gluconeogenesis and glycolysis, inhibits gastric acid secretion and gastric motility, inhibits release of norepinephrine and acetylcholine, involved in thrombus stabilization by inducing platelet aggregation|
|β1||heart, kidney, skeletal muscle, lung, colon, liver, thyroid gland, adipocytes (preadipocytes only in BAT)||coupled to Gs-type G-protein, exerts inotropic (contraction strength) and chronotropic (heart rate) effects on the heart, increases fat mobilization from adipose tissue, increases renin release from kidneys, enhances sensation of hunger through release of ghrelin by the stomach|
|β2||adipose tissue but not brown adipocytes, skeletal muscle, smooth muscle, lung, kidney, colon, liver, thyroid gland, heart||coupled to Gs-type G-protein, bronchodilator and vasodepressor, induces relaxation of smooth muscle in bronchus, bronchioles, uterus, and detrusor muscle, inhibits release of insulin, stimulates lipolysis, glycolysis, and gluconeogenesis|
|β3||abundant in adipocytes of BAT and omental fat, gallbladder and bladder, is not expressed in the heart, skeletal muscle, liver, kidneys, lung, or thyroid gland||coupled to Gs-type G-protein, regulation of lipolysis, principal norepinephrine receptor in BAT, increase lipolysis in BAT and plays major role in adaptive themogenesis|
|D1||expressed at a high level of density in the nigrostriatal, mesolimbic, and mesocortical areas, such as the caudate-putamen (striatum), nucleus accumbens, substantia nigra, olfactory bulb, amygdala, and frontal cortex, lower levels in the hippocampus, cerebellum, thalamic and hypothalamic areas; kidney||coupled to Gs-type G-protein, together with D5 receptor forms the D1-like family; most abundant dopamine receptor in the CNS, regulates neuronal growth and development, involved in vital central nervous system functions that includes voluntary movement, regulation of feeding behavior, affect, reward, sleep, attention, reproductive behaviors, impulse control, working memory, and learning; renal receptors control renin secretion|
|D2||within CNS high levels are found in the caudate-putamen, nucleus accumbens, olfactory tubercule, substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area; lower levels in septum, hypothalamus, and cortex; kidney, adrenal glands, sympathetic ganglia, gastrointestinal tract, blood vessels, heart||coupled to Gi-type G-protein, together with D3 and D4 receptors forms the D2-like family; like D1 receptors the D2 receptors are critically involved in working memory, reward and reinforcement mechanisms; regulation of locomotion, presynaptic receptors inhibit locomotion, postsynaptic receptors activate locomotion; regulation of renal function, blood pressure, vasodilation, and gastrointestinal motility|
|D3||selectively associated with the limbic system of the CNS such as the shell of the nucleus accumbens and the olfactory tubercle; not expressed outside CNS||coupled to Gi-type G-protein, together with D2 and D4 receptors forms the D2-like family, limbic system receives dopamine inputs from the ventral tegmental area which is associated with cognitive, emotional, and endocrine functions; regulation of locomotor effects; modulation of cognitive functions|
|D4||has the lowest level of brain expression of all the dopamine receptors, found in frontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, globus pallidus, substantia nigra pars reticulata, and thalamus; kidney, adrenal glands, sympathetic ganglia, gastrointestinal tract, blood vessels, heart||coupled to Gi-type G-protein, together with D2 and D3 receptors forms the D2-like family; modulation of cognitive functions; regulation of renal function, blood pressure, vasodilation, and gastrointestinal motility|
|D5||within the CNS expressed at low levels in multiple brain regions, including pyramidal neurons of the prefrontal cortex, the premo-tor cortex, the cingulated cortex, the entorhinal cortex, substantia nigra, hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the dentate gyrus; kidney, adrenal glands, sympathetic ganglia, gastrointestinal tract, blood vessels, heart||coupled to Gs-type G-protein, together with D1 receptor forms the D1-like family, likely involved in affective, neuroendocrine, or pain-related aspects of dopaminergic functions|
With respect to the sympathetic nervous system (see above), the principal neurotransmitters are norepinephrine and epinephrine and the receptors are α1, β1, and β2. Alpha-adrenergic receptors of the sympathetic nervous system play important roles in cardiac and vascular function. The presence of the α1 receptor in arteries causes them to constrict upon binding epinephrine or norepinephrine. This effect results in increased blood pressure and increased blood flow returning to the heart. Significantly, however, is the fact that the blood vessels in skeletal muscles lack α-receptors so that they can remain open to utilize the increased blood pumped by the heart, particularly in response to stress. Activation of the β1 receptor in the heart results in an increase in both the inotropic (heart rate) and the chronotropic (strength of contraction) activity of the heart muscle. Pharmacologic antagonism of the β1 receptor in the heart, such as with metoprolol (or any other of this drug class; identifiable by the ‘olol' ending), results in decreasing heart rate and contractility. The overall effect is a decrease in blood pressure. This is the basis for the use of beta blocker drugs in the treatment of hypertension and to decrease the chance of a dysrhythmia after a heart attack. The β2 receptors are prevalent in the bronchioles of the lungs and arteries of skeletal muscle. Activation of the β2 receptor in bronchioles causes them to dilate which allows more oxygenated air to enter the lungs while in the arteries of skeletal muscle dilate to allow increased blood flow into this tissue. Both of these responses allow for an enhanced response to stress such as is typical of the fight-or-flight response.back to the top
Epinephrine and norepinephrine are catabolized to inactive compounds through the sequential actions of catecholamine-O-methyltransferase (COMT) and monoamine oxidase (MAO). Compounds that inhibit the action of MAO have been shown to have beneficial effects in the treatment of clinical depression, even when tricyclic antidepressants are ineffective. The utility of MAO inhibitors was discovered serendipitously when patients treated for tuberculosis with isoniazid showed signs of an improvement in mood; isoniazid was subsequently found to work by inhibiting MAO.
Metabolism of the catecholamine neurotransmitters. Only clinically important enzymes are included in this diagram. The catabolic byproducts of the catecholamines, whose levels in the cerebrospinal fluid are indicative of defects in catabolism, are in blue underlined text. Abbreviations: TH = tyrosine hydroxylase, DHPR = dihydropteridine reductase, H2B = dihydrobiopterin (also abbreviated BH2), H4B = tetrahydrobiopterin (also abbreviated BH4), MAO = monoamine oxidase, COMT = catecholamine-O-methyltransferase, MHPG = 3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenylglycol, DOPAC = dihydroxyphenylacetic acid.
Overall control of feeding behavior is a complex process involving several well deﬁned neural circuits. These circuits consist of interactions between the brainstem and the hypothalamus as well as interactions between the gut and the hypothalamus. For detailed information on the latter go to the Gut-Brain Interrelationships page. The control of feeding behavior also involves overlapping processes such as motivational drive, satiety and the anticipation of food. A major neurotransmitter involved in the coordination and reinforcement of these reward processes is dopamine. Indeed, every known type of reward, including food, results in increased levels of dopamine in the brain. Although the cell bodies of dopaminergic neurons are confined to only a few areas of the brain, these neurons send projections to numerous areas including those involved in the regulation of feeding behaviors such as the hypothalamus.
Dopamine mediates the motivational and rewarding aspects of food seeking behavior via specific dopaminergic projections from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to the nucleus acumbens (NAc). The VTA is the origin of the dopaminergic cell bodies and the NAc is a brain region in the basal forebrain that sends projections to the basal ganglia situated at the base of the forebrain. The NAc is involved in reinforced learning, reward, pleasure, addiction, fear, aggression, and impulsivity. The reward pathways involving dopamine are also referred to as the mesolimbic or mesocorticolimbic system which also sends projections to the medial prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala. The mesolimbic dopamineric circuits are involved in the motivation to earn food rewards but not for the triggering of actual food consumption. Dopamine also mediates food consumption by sending projections from the substantia nigra to the dorsolateral striatum. Although mesolimbic dopamine circuits have clearly been associated with reward processes, the specifics of its involvement in the process are quite complex. It is important to be able to distinguish between the diverse aspects of motivational function that are differentially affected by dopamine activity. Pharmacological manipulation of dopamine demonstrates that mesolimbic dopamine is indeed critical for many aspects of motivational function, but also that it is not critically involved in all aspects of motivational function. In addition, some of the effects of mesolimbic dopamine are linked to aversive motivation and learning. However, the studies on the fundamental characteristics of reinforcing stimuli have concluded that mesolimbic dopaminergic signals, acting as positive reinforcers, tend to be preferred and thus, elicit approach, goal-directed, and high demand behaviors characteristic of positive reinforcement.
In addition to direct dopaminergic neuronal actions, the activity of the mesolimbic system is modulated by peripheral hormones that are known to regulate feeding behaviors via hypothalamic circuits such as leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is an anorexigenic hormone (decreases desire for food) produced by adipose tissue whereas, ghrelin is an orexigenic hormone (increase desire for food) produced by the stomach. Leptin action in the VTA results in reduced firing of dopaminergic neurons and decreases food intake. Conversely, animal studies demonstrate that loss of leptin receptors in the VTA leads to increased food intake. Ghrelin receptors are present in the VTA and NAc and activation of these receptors leads to increased food intake. These observation reinforce the role of dopamine in feeding behavior and demonstrate the interconnections between peripheral and central neurotransmitter actions in overall regulation of feeding.back to the top
Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5HT) is formed by the hydroxylation and decarboxylation of tryptophan (see also Specialized Products of Amino Acids).
Pathway for serotonin synthesis from tryptophan. Abbreviations: THP = tryptophan hydroxylase, DHPR = dihydropteridine reductase, H2B = dihydrobiopterin, H4B = tetrahyrobiopterin, 5-HT = 5-hydroxytryptophan, AADC = aromatic L-amino acid decarboxylase.
The greatest concentration of 5HT (90%) is found in the enterochromaffin cells of the gastrointestinal tract. Most of the remainder of the body's 5HT is found in platelets and the CNS. The effects of 5HT are felt most prominently in the cardiovascular system, with additional effects in the respiratory system and the intestines. Vasoconstriction is a classic response to the administration of 5HT.
Neurons that secrete 5HT are termed serotonergic. Following the release of 5HT, a portion is taken back up by the presynaptic serotonergic neuron in a manner similar to that of the reuptake of norepinephrine.
The function of serotonin is exerted upon its interaction with specific receptors. Several serotonin receptors have been cloned and are identified as 5HT1, 5HT2, 5HT3, 5HT4, 5HT5, 5HT6, and 5HT7. Within the 5HT1 group there are subtypes 5HT1A, 5HT1B, 5HT1D, 5HT1E (a putative 5HT receptor), and 5HT1F. There are three 5HT2 subtypes, 5HT2A, 5HT2B, and 5HT2C. There are two 5HT5 subtypes, 5HT5a and 5HT5B in the human genome but the 5HT5B gene is a pseudogene. Most of these receptors are coupled to G-proteins that affect the activities of either adenylate cyclase or phospholipase Cβ. The 5HT3 class of receptors are ion channels.
|Result of Receptor Activation|
see the Signal Transduction page for description of various G-proteins
|inhibits cAMP production, inhibitory neurotransmission|
|5HT2||Gq/G11||increased production of DAG and IP3, excitatory neurotransmission|
|5HT3||ligand-gated Na+ and K+ channels||depolarizes axonal membrane, excitatory neurotransmission|
|5HT4||Gs||increases cAMP production, excitatory neurotransmission|
|5HT5||Gi/Go||inhibits cAMP production, inhibitory neurotransmission|
|5HT6||Gs||increases cAMP production, excitatory neurotransmission|
|5HT7||Gs||increases cAMP production, excitatory neurotransmission|
Some serotonin receptors are presynaptic and others postsynaptic. The 5HT2A receptors mediate platelet aggregation and smooth muscle contraction. The 5HT2C receptors are suspected in control of food intake as mice lacking this gene become obese from increased food intake and are also subject to fatal seizures. The 5HT3 receptors are present in the gastrointestinal tract and are related to emesis (vomiting). Also present in the gastrointestinal tract are 5HT4 receptors where they function in secretion and peristalsis. The 5HT6 and 5HT7 receptors are distributed throughout the limbic system of the brain and the 5HT6 receptors have high affinity for antidepressant drugs.
|Receptor Sub-Type||Sites of Expression||Functions|
|5HT1A||vasculature, CNS||aggression, anxiety, blood pressure (vasoconstriction), appetite, memory, mood, cardiovascular tone, heart rate, respiration, pupillary dilation, nociception (pain sensation), sexual behavior, erectile function, emesis (vomiting), thermoregulation, sleep, addictive behaviors|
|5HT1B||vasculature, CNS||locomotion, aggression, anxiety, blood pressure (vasoconstriction), memory, mood, learning, sexual behavior, erectile function, addictive behaviors|
|5HT1D||vasculature, CNS||blood pressure (vasoconstriction), locomotion, anxiety|
|5HT1F||CNS||involved in migraine headaches|
|5HT2A||gastrointestinal tract, smooth muscles, vasculature, CNS, PNS, platelets||anxiety, blood pressure (vasoconstriction), thermoregulation, appetite, learning, memory, mood, cognitive abilities, sexual behavior, sleep, addictive behaviors|
|5HT2B||gastrointestinal tract, smooth muscles, vasculature, CNS, PNS, platelets||gastrointestinal, motility, blood pressure (vasoconstriction), appetite, anxiety, sleep|
|5HT2C||gastrointestinal tract, smooth muscles, vasculature, CNS, PNS, platelets||anxiety, locomotion, gastrointestinal motility, blood pressure (vasoconstriction), appetite, mood, sexual behavior, erectile function, thermoregulation, sleep, addictive behaviors|
|5HT3||gastrointestinal tract, CNS, PNS||anxiety, gastrointestinal motility, emesis (vomiting), learning, memory, addictive behaviors|
|5HT4||gastrointestinal tract, CNS, PNS||respiration, appetite, gastrointestinal motility, learning, memory, mood, anxiety|
|5HT6||CNS||cognitive abilities, learning, memory, anxiety, mood|
|5HT7||gastrointestinal tract, vasculature, CNS||blood pressure (vasoconstriction), respiration, thermoregulation, sleep, memory, mood, anxiety|