The loss of functional response upon continuous or repeated exposure to agonist, desensitization, is an intriguing phenomenon if not as yet a well-defined physiological mechanism. However, detailed evaluation of the properties of desensitization, especially for the superfamily of ligand-gated ion channels, reveals how the nervous system could make important use of this process that goes far beyond simply curtailing excessive receptor stimulation and the prevention of excitotoxicity. Here we will review the mechanistic basis of desensitization and discuss how the subunit-dependent properties and regulation of nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) desensitization contribute to the functional diversity of these channels. These studies provide the essential framework for understanding how the physiological regulation of desensitization could be a major determinant of synaptic efficacy by controlling, in both the short and long term, the number of functional receptors. This type of mechanism can be extended to explain how the continuous occupation of desensitized receptors during chronic nicotine exposure contributes to drug addiction, and highlights the potential significance of prolonged nAChR desensitization that would also occur as a result of extended acetylcholine lifetime during treatment of Alzheimer's disease with cholinesterase inhibitors. Thus, a clearer picture of the importance of nAChR desensitization in both normal information processing and in various diseased states is beginning to emerge.
Copyright 2002 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.