Regulation of ligand-gated ion channels by protein phosphorylation

Adv Second Messenger Phosphoprotein Res. 1999:33:49-78. doi: 10.1016/s1040-7952(99)80005-6.


The studies discussed in this review demonstrate that phosphorylation is an important mechanism for the regulation of ligand-gated ion channels. Structurally, ligand-gated ion channels are heteromeric proteins comprised of homologous subunits. For both the AChR and the GABA(A) receptor, each subunit has a large extracellular N-terminal domain, four transmembrane domains, a large intracellular loop between transmembrane domains M3 and M4, and an extracellular C-terminal domain (Fig. 1B). All the phosphorylation sites on these receptors have been mapped to the major intracellular loop between M3 and M4 (Table 1). In contrast, glutamate receptors appear to have a very large extracellular N-terminal domain, one membrane hairpin loop, three transmembrane domains, a large extracellular loop between transmembrane domains M3 and M4, and an intracellular C-terminal domain (Fig. 1C). Most phosphorylation sites on glutamate receptors have been shown to be on the intracellular C-terminal domain, although some have been suggested to be on the putative extracellular loop between M3 and M4 (Table 1). A variety of extracellular factors and intracellular signal transduction cascades are involved in regulating phosphorylation of these ligand-gated ion channels (Fig. 2). Once again, the AChR at the neuromuscular junction is the most fully understood system. Phosphorylation of the AChR by PKA is stimulated synaptically by the neuropeptide CGRP and in an autocrine fashion by adenosine released from the muscle in response to acetylcholine. In addition, acetylcholine, via calcium influx through the AChR, appears to activate calcium-dependent kinases including PKC to stimulate serine phosphorylation of the receptor. Presently, agrin is the only extracellular factor known to stimulate phosphorylation of the AChR on tyrosine residues. For glutamate receptors, non-NMDA receptor phosphorylation by PKA is stimulated by dopamine, while NMDA receptor phosphorylation by PKA and PKC can be induced via the activation of beta-adrenergic receptors, and metabotropic glutamate or opioid receptors, respectively. In addition, Ca2+ influx through the NMDA receptor has been shown to activate PKC. CaMKII, and calcineurin, resulting in phosphorylation of AMPA receptors (by CaMKII) and inactivation of NMDA receptors (at least in part through calcineurin). In contrast to the AChR and glutamate receptors, no information is presently available regarding the identities of the extracellular factors and intracellular signal transduction cascades that regulate phosphorylation of the GABA(A) receptor. Surely, future studies will be aimed at further clarifying the molecular mechanisms by which the central receptors are regulated. The presently understood functional effects of ligand-gated ion channel phosphorylation are diverse. At the neuromuscular junction, a regulation of the AChR desensitization rate by both serine and tyrosine phosphorylation has been demonstrated. In addition, tyrosine phosphorylation of the AChR or other synaptic components appears to play a role in AChR clustering during synaptogenesis. For the GABA(A) receptor, the data are complex. Both activation and inhibition of GABA(A) receptor currents as a result of PKA and PKC phosphorylation have been reported, while phosphorylation by PTK enhances function. The predominant effect of glutamate receptor phosphorylation by a variety of kinases is a potentiation of the peak current response. However, PKC also modulates clustering of NMDA receptors. This complexity in the regulation of ligand-gated ion channels by phosphorylation provides diverse mechanisms for mediating synaptic plasticity. In fact, accumulating evidence supports the involvement of protein phosphorylation and dephosphorylation of AMPA receptors in LTP and LTD respectively. There has been a dramatic increase in our understanding of the nature by which phosphorylation regulates ligand-gated ion channels. However, many questions remain unanswered. (AB

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Ion Channel Gating
  • Ion Channels / chemistry
  • Ion Channels / metabolism*
  • Phosphorylation
  • Protein Kinases / metabolism
  • Protein Processing, Post-Translational
  • Receptors, GABA-A / metabolism
  • Receptors, Glutamate / chemistry
  • Receptors, Glutamate / metabolism
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / chemistry
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction


  • Ion Channels
  • Receptors, GABA-A
  • Receptors, Glutamate
  • Receptors, Nicotinic
  • Protein Kinases