Alpha-conotoxins as pharmacological probes of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors

Acta Pharmacol Sin. 2009 Jun;30(6):771-83. doi: 10.1038/aps.2009.47. Epub 2009 May 18.


Cysteine-rich peptides from the venom of cone snails (Conus) target a wide variety of different ion channels. One family of conopeptides, the alpha-conotoxins, specifically target different isoforms of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) found both in the neuromuscular junction and central nervous system. This family is further divided into subfamilies based on the number of amino acids between cysteine residues. The exquisite subtype selectivity of certain alpha-conotoxins has been key to the characterization of native nAChR isoforms involved in modulation of neurotransmitter release, the pathophysiology of Parkinson's disease and nociception. Structure/function characterization of alpha-conotoxins has led to the development of analogs with improved potency and/or subtype selectivity. Cyclization of the backbone structure and addition of lipophilic moieties has led to improved stability and bioavailability of alpha-conotoxins, thus paving the way for orally available therapeutics. The recent advances in phylogeny, exogenomics and molecular modeling promises the discovery of an even greater number of alpha-conotoxins and analogs with improved selectivity for specific subtypes of nAChRs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / metabolism
  • Conotoxins / chemistry
  • Conotoxins / isolation & purification
  • Conotoxins / pharmacology*
  • Conus Snail / chemistry*
  • Drug Delivery Systems
  • Humans
  • Neuromuscular Junction / metabolism
  • Pain / physiopathology
  • Parkinson Disease / physiopathology
  • Protein Isoforms
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / metabolism


  • Conotoxins
  • Protein Isoforms
  • Receptors, Nicotinic