The structural basis of function in Cys-loop receptors

Q Rev Biophys. 2010 Nov;43(4):449-99. doi: 10.1017/S0033583510000168. Epub 2010 Sep 20.


Cys-loop receptors are membrane-spanning neurotransmitter-gated ion channels that are responsible for fast excitatory and inhibitory transmission in the peripheral and central nervous systems. The best studied members of the Cys-loop family are nACh, 5-HT3, GABAA and glycine receptors. All these receptors share a common structure of five subunits, pseudo-symmetrically arranged to form a rosette with a central ion-conducting pore. Some are cation selective (e.g. nACh and 5-HT3) and some are anion selective (e.g. GABAA and glycine). Each receptor has an extracellular domain (ECD) that contains the ligand-binding sites, a transmembrane domain (TMD) that allows ions to pass across the membrane, and an intracellular domain (ICD) that plays a role in channel conductance and receptor modulation. Cys-loop receptors are the targets for many currently used clinically relevant drugs (e.g. benzodiazepines and anaesthetics). Understanding the molecular mechanisms of these receptors could therefore provide the catalyst for further development in this field, as well as promoting the development of experimental techniques for other areas of neuroscience.In this review, we present our current understanding of Cys-loop receptor structure and function. The ECD has been extensively studied. Research in this area has been stimulated in recent years by the publication of high-resolution structures of nACh receptors and related proteins, which have permitted the creation of many Cys loop receptor homology models of this region. Here, using the 5-HT3 receptor as a typical member of the family, we describe how homology modelling and ligand docking can provide useful but not definitive information about ligand interactions. We briefly consider some of the many Cys-loop receptors modulators. We discuss the current understanding of the structure of the TMD, and how this links to the ECD to allow channel gating, and consider the roles of the ICD, whose structure is poorly understood. We also describe some of the current methods that are beginning to reveal the differences between different receptor states, and may ultimately show structural details of transitions between them.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Allosteric Regulation
  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cysteine Loop Ligand-Gated Ion Channel Receptors / chemistry*
  • Cysteine Loop Ligand-Gated Ion Channel Receptors / metabolism*
  • Extracellular Space / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Intracellular Space / metabolism
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary


  • Cysteine Loop Ligand-Gated Ion Channel Receptors