Extracellular adenosine 5' triphosphate (ATP) is a widespread cell-to-cell signaling molecule in the brain, where it activates cell surface P2X and P2Y receptors. P2X receptors define a protein family unlike other neurotransmitter-gated ion channels in terms of sequence, subunit topology, assembly, and architecture. Within milliseconds of binding ATP, they catalyze the opening of a cation-selective pore. However, recent data show that P2X receptors often underlie neuromodulatory responses on slower time scales of seconds or longer. Herein, we review these findings at molecular, cellular and systems levels. We propose that, while P2X receptors are fast ligand-gated cation channels, they are most adept at mediating slow neuromodulatory functions that are more widespread and more physiologically utilized than fast ATP synaptic transmission in the CNS.
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