Regulation of nicotinic acetylcholine receptor numbers and function by chronic nicotine exposure

Curr Drug Targets CNS Neurol Disord. 2002 Aug;1(4):359-85. doi: 10.2174/1568007023339184.


Recent advances concerning effects of chronic nicotine exposure on nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) expression are reviewed. Implications are assessed of these findings for roles of nAChR in health and disease and for design of drugs for treatment of neurological and psychiatric disorders. Most studies continue to show that chronic nicotine exposure induces increases in numbers of nAChR-like binding or antigenic sites ("upregulation") across all nAChR subtypes investigated, but with time- and dose-dependencies and magnitudes for these effects that are unique to subsets of nAChR subtypes. These effects appear to be post-transcriptionally based, but mechanisms involved remain obscure. With notable exceptions, most studies also show that chronic nicotine exposure induces several phases of nAChR functional loss ("desensitization" and longer-lasting "persistent inactivation") assessed in response to acute nicotinic agonist challenges. Times for onset and recovery and dose-dependencies for nicotine-induced functional loss also are nAChR subtype-specific. Some findings suggest that upregulation and functional loss are not causally- or mechanistically-related. It is suggested that upregulation is not as physiologically significant in vivo as functional effects of chronic nicotine exposure. By contrast, brain levels of nicotine in tobacco users, and perhaps levels of acetylcholine in the extracellular space, clearly are in the range that would alter the balance between nAChR in functionally ready or inactivated states. Further work is warranted to illuminate how effects of chronic nicotinic ligand exposure are integrated across nAChR subtypes and the neuronal circuits and chemical signaling pathways that they service to produce nicotine dependence and/or therapeutic benefit.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Nicotine / pharmacology*
  • Nicotinic Agonists / pharmacology*
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / genetics
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / drug therapy
  • Up-Regulation / drug effects


  • Ligands
  • Nicotinic Agonists
  • Receptors, Nicotinic
  • Nicotine