Nicotinic receptor abnormalities of Alzheimer's disease: therapeutic implications

Biol Psychiatry. 2001 Feb 1;49(3):200-10. doi: 10.1016/s0006-3223(00)01125-2.


The neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) in the brain are important for functional processes, including cognitive and memory functions. The nAChRs acting as neuromodulators in communicative processes regulated by different neurotransmitters show a relatively high abundance in the human cortex, with a laminar distribution of the nAChRs of superhigh, high, and low affinity in the human cortex. The regional pattern of messenger RNA (mRNA) for various nAChR subtypes does not strictly follow the regional distribution of nAChR ligand-binding sites in the human brain. Consistent losses of nAChRs have been measured in vitro in autopsy brain tissue of Alzheimer's disease patients (AD), as well as in vivo by positron emission tomography (PET). Measurement of the protein content of nAChRs showed reduced levels of the alpha4, alpha3, and alpha7 nAChR subtypes. The finding that the alpha4 and alpha3 mRNA levels were not changed in AD brains suggests that the losses in high-affinity nicotinic-binding sites cannot be attributed to alterations at the transcriptional level of the alpha4 and alpha3 genes and that the causes have to be searched for at the translational and/or posttranslational level. The increased mRNA level of the alpha7 nAChR subtyep in the hippocampus indicates that subunit-specific changes in gene expression of the alpha7 nAChR might be associated with AD. The PET studies reveal deficits in nAChRs as an early phenomena in AD, stressing the importance of nAChRs as a potential target for drug intervention. PET ligands measuring the alpha4 nAChRs are under development. Studies of the influence of beta-amyloid on nAChRs in brain autopsy tissue from patients with the amyloid precursor protein 670/671 mutation have shown that there is no direct relationship between nAChR deficits and pathology. Treatment with cholinergic drugs in AD patients indicate improvement of the nAChRs in the brain, as visualized by PET. Further studies on neuroprotective mechanisms mediated via nAChR subtypes are exciting new avenues.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Alzheimer Disease / drug therapy*
  • Alzheimer Disease / physiopathology
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Cholinergic Agents / adverse effects
  • Cholinergic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / physiology
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Cholinergic Agents
  • Receptors, Nicotinic