Subunit composition, distribution and function of GABA(A) receptor subtypes

Curr Top Med Chem. 2002 Aug;2(8):795-816. doi: 10.2174/1568026023393507.


GABA(A) receptors are the major inhibitory neurotransmitter receptors in the brain and are the site of action of many clinically important drugs. These receptors are composed of five subunits that can belong to eight different subunit classes. Depending on their subunit composition, these receptors exhibit distinct pharmacological and electrophysiological properties. Recent studies on recombinant and native GABA(A) receptors suggest the existence of far more receptor subtypes than previously assumed. Thus, receptors composed of one, two, three, four, or five different subunits might exist in the brain. Studies on the regional, cellular and subcellular distribution of GABA(A) receptor subunits, and on the co-localization of these subunits at the light and electron microscopic level for the first time provide information on the distribution of GABA(A) receptor subtypes in the brain. These studies will have to be complemented by electrophysiological and pharmacological studies on the respective recombinant and native receptors to finally identify the receptor subtypes present in the brain. The distinct cellular and subcellular location of individual receptor subtypes suggests that they exhibit specific functions in the brain that can be selectively modulated by subtype specific drugs. This conclusion is supported by the recent demonstration that different GABA(A) receptor subtypes mediate different effects of benzodiazepines. Together, these results should cause a revival of GABA(A) receptor research and strongly stimulate the development of drugs with a higher selectivity for alpha2-, alpha3-, or alpha5-subunit-containing receptor subtypes. Such drugs might exhibit quite selective clinical effects.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Organ Specificity
  • Protein Subunits
  • Receptors, GABA-A* / chemistry
  • Receptors, GABA-A* / metabolism
  • Receptors, GABA-A* / physiology
  • Recombinant Proteins / chemistry
  • Recombinant Proteins / metabolism


  • Protein Subunits
  • Receptors, GABA-A
  • Recombinant Proteins