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Brief Overview of Human Nervous System












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 brainstem.


Neurons are the highly specialized cells of all nervous systems (e.g. CNS and PNS) that are tasked 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 (action potential) 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 action potential 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

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.

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Autonomic Nervous System

Sympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) 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 SNS results in contraction, for example, vasoconstriction. Although stress is a major trigger of the SNS, it is constantly active at a basal level to maintain homeostasis. The activation of the neurons of the SNS occurs as a result of signals arising in the region of the brain stem called the nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS, for the latin term nucleus tractus solitarii). The NTS receives a wide range of sensory inputs from both systemic and central baroreceptors and chemoreceptors. The neurons of the SNS emanate from the medulla, specifically the rostral ventrolateral medulla, and travel down the spinal cord where they synapse with short preganglionic neurons within the sympathetic ganglia. The ganglia of the SNS are the nerve cell bodies that lie on either side of the spinal cord. Preganglionic sympathetic fibers are those that exit the spinal cord synapses within these ganglia. The preganglionic neurotransmitter is acetylcholine, ACh. ACh released from the sympathetic preganglionic neuron binds to nicotinic ACh receptors (nAChR) on the postganglionic neuron. 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 neurotransmitter released from sympathetic postganglionic neurons is norepinephrine which binds to its receptor expressed in the target cell. The target organ receptors responsive to signals from the SNS are those of the adrenergic family, specifically α1, α2, β1, and β2 (see below). Although the primary neurotransmitter released from sympathetic postganglionic neurons is norepinephrine, there are two important exceptions. These exceptions are the postganglionic neurons that innervate chromaffin cells of the adrenal medulla and those that innervate the sweat glands. When the postganglionic neurons that innervate sweat glands are activated, they release ACh (not epinephrine) which binds to muscarinic ACh receptors (mAChR) on the target cell. Adrenal medullary chromaffin cells are functionally analogous to sympathetic postganglionic neurons and when stimulated by ACh from a sympthetic preganglionic neuron these cells release epinephrine and norepinephrine into the circulation.

Parasympathetic Nervous System

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" and "feed-and-breed" 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. Within the head the parasympathetic nervous system includes cranial nerves III, VII, and IX while cranial nerve X (comprising the vagus nerves) exits the brain stem to innervate the organs of the body. Like the SNS, the activation of the vagus nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system occurs as a result of signals arising in the NTS. There are three nuclei within the medulla that send out vagal nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system. These nuclei are the dorsal motor nucleus, the solitary nucleus, and the nucleus ambiguus. Parasympathetic neural outputs to the heart arise primarily within the nucleus ambiguus. 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 all exit the brain stem, they do not travel down the spinal chord except for the pelvic splanchnic nerves which exit the spinal cord in the S2-S4 region. The parasympathetic preganglionic nerves enter their target organs where they form synapses with postganglionic neurons. Like the sympathetic ganglia, the neurotransmitter of parasympathetic preganglionic nerves is ACh. When released from these nerves the ACh binds to nicotinic ACh receptors (nAChR) on the postganglionic nerve. However, unlike sympathetic postganglionic nerves, activation of the parasympathetic postganglionic nerves results in the release of ACh. When released from the parasympathetic postganglionic neuron, the ACh binds to muscarinic ACh receptors (mAChR) in the target cells, primarily the M2 and M3 receptors.

Autonomic Control of Cardiovascular System

Within the cardiovascular system the norepinephrine released from sympathetic postganglionic neurons binds to β1 adrenergic receptors expressed on cells of the heart within the sinoatrial (SA) node (primary cardiac pacemaker cells), the atrioventricular (AV) node, the ventricles, and the conduction system. Activation of the β1 receptor in the heart results in increased force of contraction (inotropy), increased heart rate (chronotropy), and increased cardiac conductance (dromotropy). Within the vasculature sympathetic postganglionic nerve release of norepinephrine results in activation of the α1 and α2 adrenergic receptors resulting in vasoconstriction. However, the smooth muscle cells of the vessels in skeletal muscle possess predominantly β2 adrenergic receptors, stimulation of which results in vasodilation, since they need to remain open to receive the increased blood flow from the heart during the fight-or-flight response. The primary activator of the β2 adrenergic receptors in skeletal muscle vasculature is the epinephrine released from the adrenal medulla in response to sympathetic activation. Within the cardiovascular system the primary target cells of the heart that receive parasympathetic innervation are the SA node (from the right vagus nerve), the AV node (from the left vagus nerve), and atrial cells. The cardiac muscarinic receptor that minds ACh released from parasympathetic postganglionic nerves is the M2 type receptor. Activation of the M2 receptor results in decreased heart rate (chronotropy) and cardiac conductance (dromotropy). The effects of the parasympathetic nervous system on the heart supercede the effects of the sympathetic nervous system such that even in the face of sympathetic stimulation, parasympathetic stimulation can depress cardiac activity. Within the vasculature the ACh binds to M3 receptor on endothelial cells leads to increased NO production resulting in vasodilation. However, this ACh is not derived from parasympathetic nerves but directly from the circulation. Parasympathetic postganglioninc ACh does stimulate M3 receptor-mediated NO production but this is only in the external genitalia.

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Introduction to Neurotransmitters

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.

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Table of Common Neurotransmitters

non-inclusive listing

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-aspartate (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
5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT)
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
synthesis pathway
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 vasoconstriction and bronchodilation
synthesis pathway
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)
synthesis pathway
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 conduction 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; ATP binds to metabotropic G-protein coupled receptors (GPCR) of the P2Y family of purinergic/pyrimidinergic receptors of which there are ten in humans: P2Y1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10–14; P2Y12 is primarily expressed on the surface of platelets where it serves as a major ATP-mediating receptor of blood coagulation

ATP also binds to the ionotropic family of purinergic receptors (P2X) which consists of seven members (P2X1-P2X7); these receptors modulate synaptic transmission throughout the autonomic nervous systems of the CNS and PNS; 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

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Nerve Cell Action Potentials and Synaptic Transmission

The transmission of an efferent signal from the CNS to a target tissue, or an afferent signal from a peripheral tissue back to the CNS occurs as a result of the propagation of action potentials along a nerve cell. Nerve cells are excitable cells and they can respond to various stimuli such as electrical, chemical, or mechanical. When the excitation event is propagated along the nerve cell membrane it is referred to as a nerve impulse or more often as an action potential. When a nerve cell terminates on another it does so at a specialized structure called a synapse. Synaptic transmission refers to the propagation of nerve impulses (action potentials) from one nerve cell to another. The synapse is 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 (pronounced "boo-tawn"). 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).

Action potentials are the result of membrane depolarization which is brought about by a change in the distribution of ions across the membrane. Differences in ion concentrations on either side of a membrane result in a electrical charge differential across the membrane which is referred to as an electrochemical potential. Changes in ion concentrations on either side of a membrane result in depolarization of the membrane. Once a portion of a membrane is depolarized, the ion gradients need to be returned to the "resting" state, a process referred to as repolarization. The movement of ions across the membrane is the function of proteins and protein complexes termed ion channels. Because nerve transmission involves changes in voltage (charge) across the plasma membrane, these ion channels respond to the voltage changes and are, therefore, referred to as voltage-gated ion channels.

The resting membrane potential of a neuron is maintained by the differential distribution of K+ and Na+ ions. The concentration of intracellular K+ is much higher than the extracellular concentration. This situation is just the opposite for Na+, which is at a much higher concentration outside the cell than inside. This differential is maintained through the action plasma membrane transporters of the Na+,K+-ATPase family. The initiation and propagation of an action potential is the result of the opening and closing of voltage-gated K+ channels and voltage-gated Na+ channels. In the rested stated both types of voltage-gated channels are closed. In response to a depolarizing signal (an excitation signal) the fast acting voltage-gated Na+ channels open allowing an influx of Na+ ions into the cell. The influx of Na+ causes more voltage-gated Na+ channels to open propagating the depolarization event. The Na+ channels ultimately close (within milliseconds) to an inactivated state, meaning they cannot be re-opened prior to the membrane returning to its initial rested state. The opening of voltage-gated K+ channels occurs much slower than for the Na+ channels and they are not fully open until the Na+ channels have re-closed. The opening of the K+ channels allows K+ to exit the cell which brings the net charge inside the cell back to the rested state potential. The opening of the K+ channels, following closure of the Na+ channels, represents the repolarization stage and brings the action potential to an end.

Nerve impulses are transmitted from one neuron to another, or from a neuron to a target tissue cell, at synapses by the release of neurotransmitters. As discussed in detail throughout this page, neurotransmitters can be small chemicals, such as amino acids or amino acid derivatives, or they can be lipids, such as the endocannabinoid, anandamide. As a nerve impulse, or action potential, reaches the end of a presynaptic axon, molecules of neurotransmitter are released into the synaptic space. The release of neurotransmitter involves the processes of exocytosis. When an action potential reaches the presynaptic terminal the membrane depolarization results in the opening of voltage-gated Ca2+ channels. The influx of Ca2+ ions induces the membranes of neurotransmitter secretory vesicles to fuse with the plasma membrane allowing the contents to be released into the synaptic cleft.

structure of a typical synapse (glutamatergic)

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.

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Neuromuscular Transmission

In order to move a skeletal muscle cell, an action potential must be initiated from a peripheral motor neuron. Cardiac muscle (myocardial) cells on the other hand, can initiate their own electrical activity in the absence of an autonomic nerve-mediated action potential. With respect to skeletal muscle, nerve transmission occurs when an axon of a post-ganglionic nerve terminates on a skeletal muscle fiber, at specialized structures called the neuromuscular junction. An action potential occurring at this site is known as neuromuscular transmission. At a neuromuscular junction, the axon subdivides and branches into numerous structures, referred to as terminal buttons (pronounced "boo-tawns") or end bulbs, that can then innervate numerous skeletal muscle fibers. The result is that many muscle fibers can be innervated by a single neuron instead of each fiber having to be dependent upon an individual neuron for contractile activation. The skeletal muscle fibers that are innervated by branches from the same neuron constitute a motor unit. Large muscles in the body (e.g. the gastrocnemius) contain numerous motor units. This arrangment of the motor units in a particular muscle allows for activation of only a specific part of a muscle at any given time. This represents a form of spatial control over muscle fiber contraction within a muscle, a feature not associated with cardiac muscle excitation as discussed below.

The terminal buttons (end bulbs) of the motor neurons reside within depressions formed in the skeletal muscle plasma membrane (sarcolema). At these locations the skeletal muscle membrane is thickened and is referred to as the motor end plate. The space between the terminal buttons (end bulbs) and the motor end plate is similar to the synaptic cleft that exists where the pre-synaptic and post-synaptic membranes of neurons are in close proximity. The particular neurotransmitter in use at the neuromuscular junction is acetylcholine, ACh. When an action potential reaches the pre-synaptic membrane of a motor neuron the permeability of the membrane changes. This change in permeability allows Ca2+ to enter the nerve endings triggering exocytosis of ACh-containing vesicles. The released ACh then binds to nicotinic ACh receptors (nAChR) that are concentrated in the motor end plate membrane. Once released from the motor neuron, the level of active ACh is controlled by its catabolism through the action of acetylcholinesterase. As discussed below, nAChR are members of the ionotropic receptor superfamily (ion channel receptors). Activation of nicotinic ACh receptors in the motor end plate results in an increase in Na+ and K+ conductance through the nAChR channel. The resulting influx of Na+ into the skeletal muscle cell produces a depolarizing potential. As a result of this depolarization, action potentials are conducted in both directions, away from the motor end plate, along the muscle fiber. These action potentials are the result of the initial membrane depolarization and propagated across the surface membrane via the opening of voltage-gated Na+ channels. The action potential is then propagated down the T-tubule system which directly interacts with the sarcoplasmic reticulum, SR. Activation of the SR leads to the release, into the sarcoplasm (cytoplasm of muscle cells), of stored Ca2+ through the opening of Ca2+ release channels. The SR calcium release channels are also known as the ryanodine receptor (RYR) due to the fact that they were originally identified by their high affinity for the plant alkaloid ryanodine.The end result of the ACh-initiated propagating action potential is muscle contraction.

A particularly devastating disease that results from defects in the overall processes of neuromuscular nerve transmission is myasthenia gravis, MG. MG is a very serious disorder that is often times fatal. The characteristic features of the disease are weakened skeletal muscles that tire with very little exertion. MG is an auto-immune disease associated with antibodies to the nAChR of the neuromuscular junction. Binding of the antibodies to the receptor results in receptor destruction as well as receptor cross-linking. In most patients with MG there is a 70%–90% reduction in motor end plate nicotinic receptor number. Two major forms of MG exist, one in which the extraocular muscles are the ones primarily affected and in the other form there is a generalized skeletal muscle involvement. In the latter form of MG, the muscles of the diaphragm become affected resulting in respiratory failure which contributes to the mortality of MG. Treatment of MG involves numerous approaches including the use of acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. The use of these types of drugs allows for enhanced levels of ACh at the motor end plate during repeated muscle stimulation.

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Neurotransmitter Receptors

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.

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Glutamate: Major Excitatory Neurotransmitter

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.

Glutamate Receptors

Receptor Name
(other names)
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 presynaptic 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 presynaptic 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 presynaptic receptor; depresses excitatory transmission by preventing glutamate release
mGluR5 GRM5 metabotropic, group I family GPCR coupled to Gq-type G-protein; primarily a postsynaptic 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 presynaptic 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 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 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 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 modulators of synaptic response and are involved in co-incidence detection (bidirectional current flow at a synapse)
GluN2D (NR2D, NMDAR2D) GRIN2D ionotropic, NMDA functional NMDA receptors requires simultaneous binding of both glutamate and glycine; the GluN2 subunits provide the glutamate-binding sites; receptors function asmodulators of synaptic response and are involved in co-incidence detection (bidirectional current flow at a synapse)
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 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 modulators of synaptic response and are involved in co-incidence detection (bidirectional current flow at a synapse)

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The Glutamate-Glutamine Cycle in the Brain

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).

diagrammatic representation of the glutamate-glutamine cycle in the brain

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 form of glutaminase encoded by the GLS2 gene. This form of glutaminase is referred to as 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.

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Glycine, as an amino acid found in proteins, is critical to the functions of several different classes of protein, particularly those of the extracellular matrix. However, glycine as a free amino acid also functions as a highly important neurotransmitter within the central nervous system, CNS. Glycine and GABA are the major inhibitory neurotransmitters in the CNS, whereas, glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter. In conjunction with glutamate, glycine can also function in an excitatory capacity as a co-agonist acting on the NMDA subtype of glutamate receptors (see section above). The receptors to which glycine binds were originally identifed by their sensitivity to the alkaloid strychnine. Strychnine-sensitive glycine receptors (GlyRs) mediate the synaptic inhibition exerted in response to glycine binding. Glycinergic synapses mediate fast inhibitory neurotransmission within the spinal cord, brainstem, and caudal brain. The effects of glycine exert control over a variety of motor and sensory functions, including vision and audition. The GlyRs are members of the ionotropic family of ligand-gated ion channels. The binding of glycine leads to the opening of the GlyR integral anion channel, and the resulting influx of Cl ions hyperpolarizes the postsynaptic cell, thereby inhibiting neuronal firing.

Glycine Transporters

Cellular uptake of glycine, particularly within neurons in the central nervous system (CNS), is regulated by the presence of specific glycine transporters identified as GlyT. There are two subtypes of GlyT identified as GlyT1 and GlyT2. Both glycine transporters are members of the solute carrier family of membrane transporters. The GlyT1 protein is encoded by the SLC6A9 gene and the GlyT2 protein is encoded by the SLC6A5 gene. The tissue distribution and funciton of the two glycine transporters are distinct. GlyT1 is predominantly expressed in glutamatergic neurons where it functions in the regulation of glycine levels in the vicinity of the NMDA-type glutamate receptors. GlyT2 is predominantly expressed in glycinergic neurons where it functions to regulate inhibitory glycinergic neurotransmission by decreasing synaptic Gly concentrations after presynaptic release. A form of inherited hyperekplexia of presynaptic origin (HKPX3) results from mutations in the SLC6A5 (GlyT2) gene.

Impaired glutamatergic neurotransmission via the NMDA receptors has been associated with the symptoms of schizophrenia and the associated cognitive deficit. Pharmacologic inhibitors of GlyT1 have some utility to improve impaired NMDA receptor function in psychosis by increasing synaptic glycine concentrations. These transport inhibitors function by increasing extrasynaptic Gly concentrations via inhibition of its neuronal or glial reuptake processes. When used in combination with other antipsychotic medications, GlyT1 inhibitors have been shown to be capable of restoring disturbed glutamatergic-GABAergic-dopaminergic balance in psychosis.

Glycine Receptors

The receptors to which glycine binds (GlyRs) are members of the group I ligand-gated ion channel (LGIC) class of receptors. The LGIC receptors are members of the Cys loop receptor family that also includes the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR), the serotonin type 3 receptor (5-HT3), and the GABAA receptors (GABAAR). The GlyRs are composed of three different proteins, two of which constitute the actual receptor and a third protein that serves a scaffolding function. The receptor subunits are referred to as GlyRα and GlyRβ. These subunits are tightly bound to a cytosolic scaffolding protein identified as gephyrin. Gephyrin is tightly bound to the GlyRβ subunit. In addition to its role in GlyR function, gephryin (gene symbol: GPHN) functions to regulate the activity of the GABAA receptor and it is required for molybdenum cofactor biosynthesis. Functional GlyRs are heteropentameric proteins similar to the organization of the nAChRs found in skeletal muscle. The typical subunit composition of the heteropentameric GlyR is (GlyRα)2(GlyRβ)3.

Humans express four GlyR genes encoding α subunits (GLRA1–GLRA4) and a single GlyR gene encoding the β subunit (GLRB). All GlyRα subunits display high amino acid sequence identity and form functional homomeric glycine-gated channels. The GlyRα subunits possess critical determinants of ligand binding. The GLRA1 gene is located on chromosome 5q32 and is composed of 10 exons that generate three alternatively spliced mRNAs. The GLRA2 gene is located on the X chromosome (Xp22.2) and is composed of 13 exons that generate four alternatively spliced mRNAs. Two of the splice variant GLRA2 mRNAs encode the same protein, thus, the four variant mRNAs generate three different GLRA2 proteins. The GLRA3 gene is located on chromosome 4q34.1 and is composed of 13 exons that generate two alternatively spliced mRNAs. The GLRA4 gene is located on the X chromosome (Xq22.2) on the other arm relative to the position of the GLRA2 gene. The GLRA4 gene is composed of 9 exons that generate two alternatively spliced mRNAs. Glycine receptors that contain the GlyRα1 subunit represent the predominant form of the α-subunit in adult glycine receptors. Several mutations in the GLRA1 gene have been shown to be associated with the startle disease known as hereditary hyperekplexia type 1, HKPX1. The hallmark symptoms of HKPX1 are an exaggerated startle response to auditory or tactile stimuli and, particularly in neonates, transient muscle rigidity referred to as “stiff baby syndrome".

In addition to alternative splicing, the GLRA3 mRNA is subject to editing that results in the substitution of a Pro residue for a Leu residue at amino acid 185 in the extracellular domain. This version of the GlyRα3 protein confers an increased agonist affinity to GlyRα3-containing glycine receptors. The GlyRα3-containing GlyRs are involved in the pathways of nociception (pain sensation) within the spinal cord. Specific spinal cord neurons (in laminae I and II) mediate pain sensation in response to the inflammatory mediator, prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). When PGE2 binds to its receptor in these neurons (the EP2 receptor), PKA is activated which then phosphorylates the GlyRα3 protein in the glycine receptor resulting in down-regulation of glycine stimulated inhibitory circuits in these neurons. The analgesic effects of cannabinoids and endocannabinoids involves the modulation of GlyRα3-containing glycine receptors. Thus, it is postulated that GlyRα3 represents a potentially useful target for the pharmacologic intervention in chronic pain syndromes.

The GlyRβ gene is located on chromosome 4q31.3 and is composed of 12 exons that generate three alternatively spliced mRNAs that encode two distinct GlyRβ isoforms. Unlike the GlyRα subunits which can form a functional glycine-gated ion channel, the GlyRβ protein cannot form a functional glycine receptor on its own. The role of the GlyRβ subunit is to regulate agonist binding and intracellular trafficking and synaptic clustering of post-synaptic GlyRs. Mutations in the GLRB gene are associated with another form of hyperekplexia identified as HKPX2.

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GABA (γ-Aminobutyric acid)

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.

Synthesis of GABA

GABA synthesis

GABA exerts its effects by binding to two distinct receptor subtypes. The GABA-A (GABAA) receptors are members of the ionotropic receptors, specifically the Cys-loop subfamily of ligand-gated ion channels that includes the nicotinic ACh receptors (nAChR), glycine receptors (GlyR), and the 5-HT3 (serotonin) receptor. The GABA-B (GABAB) receptors belong to the class C family of metabotropic G-protein coupled receptors (GPCR). The GABA-A receptors are chloride channels that in response to GABA binding increase chloride influx into the GABAergic neuron. The GABA-B receptors are coupled to a G-protein that activates an associated potassium channel 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.

GABA-A Receptor Subunits

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 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.

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Pharmacology of GABA 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. 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.

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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 terminus 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 (AChE). AChE is a highly active enzyme capable of hydrolyzing on the order of 25,000 molecules of ACh per second. The released choline is then taken back up by the presynaptic neuron where it can once again serve as a substrate for ACh synthesis via choline acetyltransferase.

Two different mammalian AChE isoforms are produced from the single ACHE gene (chromosome 7q22.1) in humans via alternative splicing and post-translational modification. These two AChE isoforms are termed T (tail) and H (hydrophobic). The T form (AChET, also known as the hydrophilic form) is the predominant enzyme in the brain and at the neuromuscular junction. The H form (AChEH) is the principal enzyme form found in erythroid cells. The AChEH isoform is anchored to red blood cell membranes via a GPI-linkage and this form constitutes the Yt blood group antigen.

Synthesis of acetylcholine

Synthesis of Acetylcholine

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.

Muscarininc Acetylcholine Receptors

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 Gi type G-proteins that inhibit 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.

Muscarinic Acetylcholine Receptors

Receptor Nomenclature Gene Symbol Expression Profile Functions / Comments
M1 (M1) CHRM1 predominantly expressed in the forebrain, including the cerebral cortex, hippocampus and corpus striatum; ganglionic receptor; lungs; secretory glands 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) CHRM2 predominant receptor in heart tissue; lungs; smooth muscle 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) CHRM3 broadly expressed throughout the brain at low levels; expressed in periphery in secretory 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) CHRM4 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) CHRM5 abundantly expressed in dopamine-containing neurons of the substantia nigra par compacta; lungs coupled to a Gq/11-type G-protein

Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptors

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. Regardless of type, nAChRs that contain the α4 and β2 subunits are the highest affinity receptors.

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)24)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.

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Cholinergic Agonists and Antagonists

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.

Table of Several Natural Cholinergic Agonists and Antagonists

  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

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Cholinergic Pharmacology

Pharmacological intervention in the functions of acetylcholine is effected by either of two routes. In the direct-acting class there are the acetylcholine mimicking drugs (cholinomimetics) and in the indirect-acting class are the acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. There are numerous cholinomimetic drugs which includes methacholine, carbachol, and bethanechol as prominent examples. Methacholine exerts its effects through the muscarinic acetylcholine receptors and is used primarily in the bronchial challenge test used to diagnose hyperactivity in the bronchial tree as it typical in asthma. Carbachol functions primarily by activating nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and can exert systemic effects in the gastrointestinal system and in the bladder. However, it is used primarily as a locally administered drug in the treatment of glaucoma. Bethanechol is a muscarinic acetylcholine receptor agonis used primarily in the treatment of urinary retention following anesthesia and in diabetic neuropathy.

Acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors are used to increase the effective level and action of acetylcholine acting at both muscarinic and nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. Aceythcholinesterase inhibitors that are used pharmacologically are principally of the reversible (competitive and noncompetitive) type. Irreversible AChE inhibitors exert toxic effects such as the effects of the toxic organophosphate pesticides and nerve agents. The reversible AChE inhibitors, such as donepezil, rivastigmine and galantamine, are commonly used in the treatment neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer disease (AD) and Parkinson disease (PD). These reversible inhibitors are also used to treat the neuromuscular disorder, myasthenia gravis, that results from autoimmune destruction of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR). Reversible AChE inhibitors are also used as antidotes in the treatment of organophosphate pesticide intoxication. Although these AChE inhibitors are used to reduce the symptoms associated with AD they do not exert their effects in the long term (being effective for only 12-24 months) and they have no effects on the rate of cognitive decline in AD. The carbamates (derived from carbamic acid: NH2COOH) represent a large class of compounds, many of which are reversible AChE inhibitors (e.g. rivastigmine). Although reversible, the carbamates can exert acute toxic effects that are similar to those of the irreversible organophosphates. Indeed, several carbamate compounds are used as pesticides and parasiticides in the veterinary field. Clinically the carbamates are used in the treatment of myasthenia gravis, glaucoma, and neurodegenerative disorders such as AD and PD, similarly to donepezil and galantamine. Although the irreversible AChE inhibitors are quite toxic and have been used as deadly nerve agents (e.g. VX) and as insecticides, they do have pharmacologic utility. The drug echothiophate (phospholine) is administered locally in the treatment of glaucoma and metrifonate is used in the treatment of AD and PD.

As described above, 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 (primarily nicotinic ACh receptor antagonists) 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, ganglionic blockade 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.

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Catecholamines: Dopamine, Epinephrine, Norepinephrine

The principal catecholamines are norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine. These compounds are formed from the amino acid tyrosine. Tyrosine is produced, primarily, 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). Within the substantia nigra locus of the brain, and some other regions of the brain, synthesis proceeds only to dopamine. Within the locus coeruleus region of the brain the end product of the pathway is norepinephrine. The presence of high concentrations of tyrosine in the locus coeruleus and the substantia nigra leads to increased melanin synthesis which confers on these brain regions a dark bluish coloration observable in brain sections. Indeed, these brain regions are so-called due to the dark bluish-black pigmentation. The Latin term, substantia nigra, means "black substance". The Latin word coeruleus means "dark blue, blue, or blue-green". Within adrenal medullary chromaffin cells, tyrosine is converted to norepinephrine and epinephrine.

Synthesis of the catecholamines

Synthesis of the catecholamines from tyrosine. Tyrosine is converted to each of the three catecholamines through a series of four reactions. The tissue from which the neurotransmitter/hormone is derived expresses a specific set, or all, of these enzymes such that only dopamine (substantia nigra) is the result, or only norepinephrine (locus coeruleus), or both norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenal medulla). DOPA decarboxylase (also known as aromatic L-amino acid decarboxylase) is encoded by the DDC gene. Dopamine β-hydroxylase is a critical vitamin C (ascorbate) and copper (Cu2+)-dependent enzyme.

Once synthesized, dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine are packaged in granulated vesicles for secretion in response to the appropriate nerve impulse. Within these vesicles, norepinephrine and epinephrine are bound to ATP and a protein called chromogranin A. Norepinephrine is the principal neurotransmitter of sympathetic postganglionic nerves. Both norepinephrine and epinephrine are stored in synaptic knobs of neurons that secrete it, however, epinephrine is not a mediator at postganglionic sympathetic nerve impulses. The major location, within the brain, for norepinephrine synthesis is the locus coeruleus of the brainstem. The major brain region for the synthesis of dopamine is the substantia nigra which is located below the posterior hypothalamus and next to the ventral tegmetal area. Outside the brain, the major site of norepinephrine and epinephrine synthesis is in adrenal medullary chromaffin cells. Outside the brain, dopamine is synthesized in several tissues including the gastrointestinal system where its actions reduce gastrointestinal motility, the pancreas where its actions inhibit insulin synthesis, and in the kidneys where its actions increase sodium excretion and urinary output.

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 primary effects of the catecholamines are exerted as neurotransmitters upon their stimulated release from presynaptic nerve terminals in the appropriate target organ. However, release of the catecholamines from adrenal medullary cells to the systemic circulation allow them to function as hormones as well. Regardless of their site of release, the catecholamines exert their effects by binding to receptors of the G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) family. The catecholamines are also known as adrenergic neurotransmitters and the neurons that secrete them are referred to as adrenergic neurons. Norepinephrine-secreting neurons are specifically termed noradrenergic neurons. Some of the norepinephrine released from presynaptic noradrenergic neurons is recycled in the presynaptic neuron by a reuptake mechanism similar to that responsible for regulating the CNS actions of serotonin.

The actions of norepinephrine and epinephrine are exerted upon binding to and activating the adrenergic receptors of which there are nine distinct forms. As indicated, the adrenergic receptors are all members of the GPCR family. There are two distinct types of adrenergic receptor identified as the α (alpha) and β (beta) receptors. In addition, there are two functionally distinct classes of α adrenergic receptor identified as the α1 and α2 forms. Within each α-adrenergic receptor type there are several variants encoded by distinct genes as well as additional isoforms that result from alternative mRNA splicing. The α1 receptors consist of the α1A, α1B, and α1D receptors. The α1 receptors are coupled to Gq-type G-proteins that activate PLCβ resulting in increases in IP3 and DAG release from membrane PIP2. The α2 receptors consist the α2A, α2B, and α2C receptors. The α2 receptors are coupled to Gi-type G-proteins that inhibit the activation of adenylate cyclase and therefore, receptor activation results in reduced levels of cAMP and consequently reduced levels of active PKA. The β adrenergic receptors are composed of three types: 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. However, the β2 receptor can switch from Gs to Gi/o signaling following phosphorylation of the receptor by PKA.

Dopamine binds to dopamineric receptors identified as D-type receptors and there are five receptors identified as D1, D2, D3, D4, and D5. All five dopamine receptors belong the the G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) family. The D1 and D5 dopamine receptors are coupled to the activation of Gs-type G-proteins and, therefore, receptor activation results in activation of adenylate cyclase. The D2, D3, and D4 dopamine receptors are coupled to Gi-type G-proteins and, therefore, receptor activation results in the inhibition of adenylate cyclase. The D1 and D5 receptors constitute members of the D1-like receptor family. The D2, D3, and D4 receptors constitute members of the D2-like receptor family.

Adrenegic and Dopaminergic Receptors

Receptor Type Gene Symbol(s) Expression Profile Functions / Comments
predominates in vascular smooth muscles in the vessels of the skin, gastrointestinal system, kidneys, and central nervous system (CNS); 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; α1A receptor predominates in contraction of renal and caudal arteries; is also responsible for cardiac myocyte hypertrophy; α1B receptor likely to be responsible for contraction of small vessels; α1D receptor predominates in contraction of aorta, femoral, iliac, and superior mesenteric arteries; salt-induced hypertension involves functions of α1D receptor; α1D responsible for aortic smooth muscle hypertrophy; majority of α1 receptor agonists exert their effects via regulation of α1B receptor function; α1 receptor signaling linked to the MAPK pathway; within the CNS the α1 receptors are involved in motor control, locomotion, and cognitive functions
widely distributed within the central nervous system (CNS); vessels, adipose tissue, kidneys, and platelets three subtypes: α2A, α2B, α2C; coupled to Gi-type G-proteins; coupled to the regulation of multiple signaling pathways in addition to adenylate cyclase such as the MAPK pathways, phospholipase D (PLD), activation of G-protein coupled inwardly-rectifying potassium channels (GIRK), and inhibition of Ca2+ channels; α2 receptors are essential feedback regulators of neurotransmitter release (norepinephrine and acetylcholine); receptors function within the CNS to decrease blood pressure and exert bradycardic effects, exert a hypothermic effect, and induce arterial and venous vasoconstriction; in the periphery α2 receptors inhibit insulin release and stimulate glucagon secretion, modulate gluconeogenesis and glycolysis, inhibit gastric acid secretion and gastric motility; involved in thrombus stabilization by inducing platelet aggregation; α2B subtype important during embryonic vascular development, also induces hypertension
β1 ADRB1 heart, kidney, skeletal muscle, lung, colon, liver, thyroid gland, adipocytes (preadipocytes only in BAT) coupled to Gs-type G-protein; β1 receptors in the heart represent >80% of the total β receptor expression in this tissue; receptor activation leads to increased heart rate in the sinoatrial node (a chronotropic effect), increases atrial muscle contraction (an inotropic effect), increases ventricular muscle contractility; increases fat mobilization from adipose tissue; increases renin release from kidneys; enhances sensation of hunger through release of ghrelin by the stomach; in heart failure the chronic sympathetic activation of β1 receptors contributes to pathologic remodeling in the herat
β2 ADRB2 adipose tissue but not brown adipocytes, bronchioles, skeletal muscle, smooth muscle, lung, kidney, colon, liver, thyroid gland, heart coupled to Gs-type G-protein; switches to Gi following PKA-mediated phosphorylation of the receptor; 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 ADRB3 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 DRD1 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 DRD2 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 DRD3 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 DRD4 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 DRD5 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

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Adrenergic Pharmacology

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 α1 receptors so that they can remain open to utilize the increased blood pumped by the heart, particularly in response to stress.

Adrenegic Receptor Drugs

Drug Class Major Target(s) Effects / Comments
non-selective α blockers both classes of α receptor; primary responses at a1 receptors reduce vasoconstriction caused by both norepinephrine and epinephrine acting at α1 receptors; inhibition of α2 receptors exerted within sympathetic nervous system; phenoxybenzamine is most well known in this class, was once also used to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH); yohimbine is used as an herbal treatment for erectile dysfunction but excess usage can lead to tachycardia, dizziness, and anxiety
selective α blockers α1 receptors all drugs in this class end with the suffix 'osin' (e.g. prazosin); drugs in this class can induce orthostatic hypotension;
α1 agonists α1 receptors function systemically to increase blood pressure; methoxamine and phenylephrine increase peripheral vascular resistance resulting in increased blood pressure; these drugs are used in the treatment of hypotension and shock
α2 agonists α2 receptors function centrally (i.e. within the CNS) to lower blood pressure; methyldopa is longest used drug in this class, although not used often any longer it is the drug of choice (DOC) for the treatment of hypertension in pregnancy; cause vasodilation and reduction in blood pressure; also used to treat BPH; although classified as a non-selective agonist, clonidine is widely used drug for the treatment of hypertension and hot flashes in menopausal females; clonidine also approved for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
non-selective β blockers β1 and β2 receptors some non-selective β blocker drugs also have 'olol' suffix (e.g. propranolol)
because of their non-selectivity these drugs affect the heart, kidneys, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, liver, uterus, vascular smooth muscle (VSM), and skeletal muscle
β1 blockers β1 receptors β1 blocker drugs (e.g. metoprolol) all have a name with the suffix ‘olol'
β1-specific blockers function to decrease heart rate (chronotropic effects) and contractility (inotropic effects) leading to decreased blood pressure
β blockers are also sometimes prescribed for the treatment of glaucoma, migraine headaches, and anxiety
β2 agonists β2 receptors β2 agonists are principally used to induce bronchodilation in asthmatics and others with pulmonary dysfunction; these drugs are divided into the short-acting and long-acting subtypes; salbutamol is the most common of the prescribed short-acting drugs; all of the long-acting drugs have a name with the suffix ‘terol' (e.g. formoterol)

When considering the effects of various adrenergic receptor agonist and antagonist effects within the vasculature it is important to understand that the contractile characteristics and the mechanisms that cause contraction of cardiac myocytes and vascular smooth muscle (VSM) are very distinct. The contractile properties of cardiac myocytes are fast and of extremely short duration. In contrast, VSM undergoes slow, sustained, tonic contractions. While both cardiac muscle and VSM contain actin and myosin, VSM do not express the regulatory troponin complex as does the heart. An additional difference between VSM and cardiac myocytes relates to the structural arrangement of actin and myosin. In heart muscle these proteins are organized into distinct bands, whereas, in VSM they are not. Although organized differently, the contractile proteins of VSM are indeed highly organized in order to allow for maintaining tonic contractions and reducing vascular diameter.

Contraction of VSM is initiated by by several distinct phenomena including mechanical, electrical, and chemical stimuli. Mechanical contraction refers to the passive stretching of VSM from the cell itself and is therefore termed a myogenic response. Electrical stimulation of VSM contraction involves depolarization of the membrane, most often as a result of the opening of voltage gated calcium channels (L-type calcium channels) leading to increased intracellular calcium concentrations. When discussing chemical stimuli, that initiate contraction in VSM, these signals are hormones and neurotransmitters such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, angiotensin II, vasopressin (anti-diuretic hormone, ADH), endothelin-1, and thromboxane A2 (TXA2). Each of these molecules binds to specific receptors on the VSM cell or to receptors on the endothelial cells adjacent to the VSM. The consequences of receptor activation are VSM contraction. Although each of these receptor-mediated VSM contraction processes are different, they converge at the point of increased intracellular calcium concentration.

Increases in free intracellular calcium result from either increased calcium influx into the VSM or via the release of sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) stored calcium. Within the VSM cell, free calcium binds to the regulatory protein, calmodulin. Calcium-calmodulin activates myosin light chain kinase (MLCK) which then phosphorylates myosin light chains. Phosphorylation of myosin light chains induces the formation of cross-bridges between the myosin heads and the actin filaments leading to smooth muscle contraction. Conversely, relaxation of VSM cells occurs in response to reduced levels of myosin light chain phosphorylation. Adrenergic receptor stimulation by epinephrine or norepinephrine involves G-protein-coupled signal transduction pathways that impinge upon levels of the PKA activating molecule, cAMP. Since α1 receptors are coupled to the activation of Gq proteins there is a resultant increase in release of intracellular calcium via the action of the second messenger IP3 binding to SR membrane receptors. The consequences of the released calcium are, therefore, VSM contraction. Norepinephrine is the major activator of α1 receptors. Norepinephrine also activates α2 receptors which are Gi coupled receptors. The resultant inhibition of cAMP production due to the inhibition of adenylate cyclase leads to increased MLCK activity. The effects, therefore, of norepinephrine at α1 and α2 receptors are the same but elicited via different signaling pathways. On the other hand, epinephrine activates β2 receptors which are coupled to Gs proteins which activate adenylate cyclase resulting in increased cAMP concentrations. In most cells an increase in cAMP leads to an increase in the activity of the kinase, PKA. Although it would seem counterintuitive for this pathway to be activated under conditions where VSM relaxation was needed, the increased cAMP levels induced by VSM β2 receptor activation result in inhibition of MLCK, thereby reducing myosin light chain phosphorylation. In addition, activated PKA phosphorylates a membrane potassium channel (KATP) in VSM resulting in hyperpolarization of the cell preventing the Ca2+ influx that is required for contraction. The net effect of both of these β2 receptor-medicated events is VSM relaxation.

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 smooth muscle cells of the bronchioles of the lungs and arteries of skeletal muscle. Activation of the β2 receptors in bronchioles causes them to dilate which allows more oxygenated air to enter the lungs. Simultaneously, activation of β2 receptors in the arteries of skeletal muscle causes them to dilate to allow increased blood flow into this tissue. Both of these receptor-mediated activities allow for an enhanced response to stress such as is typical of the fight-or-flight response. It is important to note that norepinephrine also binds weakly to β2 receptors which results in vasodilation as for the case of epinephrine. This phenomenon is most noticeable pharmacologically when α1 blockers such as prazosin (drugs in this class all end in 'osin') are utilized.  Under normal physiological conditions this vasodilator effect of norepinephrine is overwhelmed by α1 receptor-mediated vasoconstriction. Equally important is the fact that, although epinephrine binds with highest affinity to VSM β2 receptors to induce vasodilation, at high concentrations it will bind to α1 and α2 receptors which can override β2 receptor effects leading to vasoconstriction.

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Catecholamine Catabolism

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 catecholamines

Catabolism 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.

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Dopamine: Reward Reinforcement and Feeding Behaviors

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.

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Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5HT) is formed by the hydroxylation and decarboxylation of tryptophan (see also Specialized Products of Amino Acids).

Synthesis of serotonin

Pathway for serotonin synthesis from tryptophan. Abbreviations: THP = tryptophan hydroxylase, DHPR = dihydropteridine reductase, H2B = dihydrobiopterin, H4B = tetrahyrobiopterin, 5-HTP = 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. Platelets themselves are incapable of synthesizing serotonin but acquire it from plasma via the action of the serotonin transporter (SLC6A4). 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. At least 15 serotonin receptors have been cloned and are identified as 5HT1, 5HT2, 5HT3, 5HT4, 5HT5, 5HT6, and 5HT7. All of the serotonin receptor genes in this superfamily are abbreviated as HTR followed by a numeral and letter designation. Within the 5HT1 group there are subtypes HTR1A, HTR1B, HTR1D, HTR1E (a putative 5HT receptor), and HTR1F. There are three 5HT2 subtypes, HTR2A, HTR2B, and HTR2C (was originally identified as the 5HT1C receptor). There are five 5HT3 subtypes, HTR3A, HTR3B, HTR3C, HTR3D, and HTR3E. The receptors HTR3C, HTR3D, and HTR3E are referred to as serotonin-like receptors. There are two 5HT5 subtypes, HTR5A and HTR5B in the human genome but the HTR5B gene is a pseudogene. Most of these receptors are coupled to G-proteins that affect the activities of either adenylate cyclase or phospholipase Cβ (PLCβ). The 5HT3 class of receptors are ion channels (ionotropic receptors).

Receptor Family Associated
Result of Receptor Activation
5HT1 Gi/Go
see the Signal Transduction page for description of various G-proteins
inhibits cAMP production, inhibitory neurotransmission; 5HT1A induces K+ channel opening
5HT2 Gq/G11 increased production of DAG and IP3, excitatory neurotransmission; 5HT2A induces closure of K+ channels
5HT3 ligand-gated Na+ and K+ channels depolarizes axonal membrane, excitatory neurotransmission
5HT4 Gs increases cAMP production, slow 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 Gene Symbol Sites of Expression Functions
5HT1A HTR1A vasculature, CNS aggression, anxiety, blood pressure, appetite, memory, mood, cardiovascular tone, heart rate, respiration, pupillary dilation, nociception (pain sensation), sexual behavior, erectile function, emesis (vomiting), thermoregulation, sleep, addictive behaviors, thermoregulation
5HT1B HTR1B vasculature, CNS locomotion, aggression, anxiety, vasodilation of cerebral vessels (plays role in triptan class antimigraine drugs), memory, appetite (by modulating melanocortin pathways), mood, learning, sexual behavior, erectile function, addictive behaviors
5HT1D HTR1D CNS thalamic blood pressure regulation (triptan class antimigraine drugs act through this receptor and 5HT1B), locomotion, anxiety
5HT1E HTR1E CNS precise function unclear, inhibits adenylate cyclase
5HT1F HTR1F CNS involved in migraine headaches, anxiety and cognitive disturbances
5HT2A HTR2A gastrointestinal tract, smooth muscles, vasculature, CNS, PNS, liver liver regeneration, anxiety, blood pressure, appetite, learning, memory, mood, cognitive abilities, sexual behavior, sleep, addictive behaviors
5HT2B HTR2B heart gastrointestinal tract, smooth muscles, vasculature, CNS, PNS, liver receptors are mitogenic involved in cardiac tissue development and liver regeneration, gastrointestinal motility, blood pressure (vasoconstriction), appetite, anxiety, sleep
5HT2C HTR2C gastrointestinal tract, smooth muscles, vasculature, CNS, PNS anxiety, locomotion, gastrointestinal motility, blood pressure, appetite (by modulating melanocortin pathways), mood, sexual behavior, erectile function, thermoregulation, sleep, addictive behaviors; agonists may hold promise in treating obesity; pre-mRNA is edited at five sites [A, B, C' (E), C, and D]; in victims of suicide, the level of C' editing is much higher and the level of D editing is significantly decreased when compared in unaffected individuals, in mice treated with the antidepressant, fluoxetine, the pattern of C, C', and D editing is the exact opposite to that observed in victims of suicide
5HT3A HTR3A predominantly expressed in small intestine, colon, and CNS; low levels detected in spleen, thymus, and prostate anxiety, gastrointestinal motility, emesis (vomiting), learning, memory, addictive behaviors; an alternatively spliced version is identified as 5HT3As
5HT3B HTR3B kidney, CNS, skeletal muscle  
5HT3C HTR3C adult brain, colon, intestine, lung, muscle, and stomach, fetal colon and kidney  
5HT3D HTR3D adult liver, adult and fetal kidney, adult and fetal colon  
5HT3E HTR3E strong in small intestine, weak in spinal cord and retina; colorectal adenocarcinoma cell lines  
5HT4 HTR4 heart, gastrointestinal tract, CNS, PNS respiration, appetite, gastrointestinal motility, learning, memory, mood, anxiety
5HT5A HTR5A exclusive to CNS locomotion, sleep
5HT6 HTR6 CNS, highest in caudate nucleus cognitive abilities, learning, memory, anxiety, mood; receptor polymorphisms associated with schizophrenia; high affinity for antidepressants and antipsychotics in particular clozapine
5HT7 HTR7 predominates CNS; also found in coronary arteries, liver, kidney, spleen, and pancreas blood pressure, respiration, thermoregulation, sleep, memory, mood, anxiety

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Histamine Synthesis and Catabolism

Histamine is referred to as a biogenic amine which is a potent neurotransmitter that binds to specific histamine receptors (see below). Histamine is synthesized by the enzymatic decarboxylation of the amino acid histidine by the enzyme L-histidine decarboxylase (HDC). Within the gastrointestinal tract bacteria also produce histamine via a similar decarboxylation reaction. The principal cells that synthesize and release histamine are mast cells and basophils of the immune system, enterochromaffin-like cells of the gastrointestinal system, and neurons. The synthesis and storage of histamine by mast cells and basophils represents the greatest store (>90%) of the neurotransmitter. Within the brain the neurons that synthesize histamine are within the tuberomammillary nucleus of the hypothalamus.

Synthesis of histamine

Synthesis of Histamine

The histidine decarboxylase gene (symbol: HDC) is located on chromosome 15q21.2 and is composed of 14 exons that generate two alternatively spliced mRNAs encoding two distinct isoforms of the enzyme. The isoform 1 protein is composed of 662 amino acids and the isoform 2 protein is composed of 629 amino acids.

Following its release, histamine is metabolized by two alternative pathways, one of which is an oxidation and the other a methylation reaction. The oxidation of histamine is catalyzed by a diamine oxidase encoded by the AOC1 (amine oxidase, copper containing 1) gene. The product of diamine oxidase reaction is imidazole acetaldehyde which is itself further metabolized to imidazole acetate via the action of an aldehyde dehydrogenase. In addition to the oxidation of histamine the diamine oxidase enzyme is involved in the metabolism of putrescine. The methylation of histamine is catalyzed by the enzyme histamine N-methyltransferase encoded by the HNMT gene. The methyl group utilized by the HNMT encoded enzyme is derived from S-adenosylmethionine. The product of the methyl transfer reaction is N-methylhistamine which is then further metabolized to N-methylimidazole acetate via the action of monoamine oxidase, MAO. MAO is also critically involved in the metabolism of the catecholamines.

Histamine Receptors

Humans express four distinct histamine receptors identified as H1R, H2R, H3R, and H4R. All four histamine receptors are members of the G-protein coupled receptor superfamily. The H1R protein is encoded by the HRH1 gene, the H2R protein is encoded by the HRH2 gene, the H3R protein is encoded by the HRH3 gene, and the H4R protein is encoded by the HRH4. The HRH1 gene is located on chromosome 3p25 and is composed of 8 exons that generate four alternatively spliced mRNAs all of which encode the same 487 amino acid protein. The HRH2 gene is located on chromosome 5q35.2 and is composed of 8 exons that generate two alternatively spliced mRNAs. HRH2 isoform 1 is 397 amino acids and HRH2 isoform 2 is 359 amino acids. The HRH3 gene is located on chromosome 20q13.33 and is composed of 4 exons that encode a 445 amino acid protein. The HRH4 gene is located on chromosome 18q11.2 and is composed of 5 exons that generate three alternatively spliced mRNAs. Isoform 1 is 390 amino acids. Isoform 2 is 302 amino acids. Isoform 3 is 67 amino acids.

The H1R protein is coupled to a Gq-type G-protein. These receptors are expressed in a wide variety of tissues including the gastrointestinal tract, central nervous system (specifically cells of the tubermamillary nucleus of the hypothalamus), both airway and vascular smooth muscle cells, endothelial cells, chondrocytes, monocytes, neutrophils, dendritic cells, T and B lymphocytes, adrenal medulla, and the cardiovascular and genitourinary systems. Expression of H1R in lymphocytes and monocytes is critical to the role of this receptor in mediating the modulatory effects of histamine within the immune system. With its distributed expression the H1R participates in ileum contraction, modulates circadian cycle, systemic vasodilatation, bronchoconstriction (allergy-induced asthma), and mediates pruritus (sensation of itchy skin).

The H2R protein is coupled to a Gs-type G-protein. Most immune cells that express the HRH1 gene also express the HRH2 gene. In addition to immune cells, the HRH2 gene is expressed in gastric parietal cells where the receptor plays a critical role in the regulation of gastric acid production in response to histamine. Indeed, histamine is the major molecule responsible for increased gastric acid production. Acetylcholine (ACh) and gastrin also contribute to gastric acid production but not to the degree of histamine. The HRH2 gene is also expressed in additional cells of the gastrointestinal tract, cells of the central nervous system, smooth muscle cells, endothelial cells, and cardiomyocytes. The principal responses to histamine binding to the H2R are stimulation of gastric acid secretion, increased sinus rhythm (cardiac rhythm initiated via depolarization from the sinus node), smooth muscle relaxation, inhibition of antibody synthesis, inhibition of T-cell proliferation and inhibition of cytokine production.

The H3R protein is coupled to a Gi-type G-protein. Expression of the HRH3 gene occurs nearly exclusively within the central nervous system, CNS. Regions of the brain that contain cell types expressing H3R include basal ganglia, cortex, hippocampus and strial area. Within the CNS the effects of histamine binding to H3R include decreases in acetylcholine (ACh), serotonin and norepinephrine production and release. Outside the CNS low level HRH3 expression has been found in the gastrointestinal and cardiovascular systems and in bronchial cells of the lungs.

The H4R protein is coupled to a Gi-type G-protein. Expression of the HRH4 gene is seen at high levels in the gastrointestinal tract, spleen, thymus, medullary cells, bone marrow and peripheral haematopoietic cells, including eosinophils, basophils, mast cells, T-cells, leukocytes and dendritic cells. Lower levels of expression of HRH4 are detected in the brain, heart, liver and lung.

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Last modified: February 1, 2017