General anesthetics are a heterogeneous group of small amphiphilic ligands that interact weakly at multiple allosteric sites on many pentameric ligand gated ion channels (pLGICs), resulting in either inhibition, potentiation of channel activity, or both. Allosteric principles imply that modulator sites must change configuration and ligand affinity during receptor state transitions. Thus, general anesthetics and related compounds are useful both as state-dependent probes of receptor structure and as potentially selective modulators of pLGIC functions. This review focuses on general anesthetic sites in nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, which were among the first anesthetic-sensitive pLGIC experimental models studied, with particular focus on sites formed by transmembrane domain elements. Structural models place many of these sites at interfaces between two or more pLGIC transmembrane helices both within subunits and between adjacent subunits, and between transmembrane helices and either lipids (the lipid-protein interface) or water (i.e. the ion channel). A single general anesthetic may bind at multiple allosteric sites in pLGICs, producing a net effect of either inhibition (e.g. blocking the ion channel) or enhanced channel gating (e.g. inter-subunit sites). Other general anesthetic sites identified by photolabeling or crystallography are tentatively linked to functional effects, including intra-subunit helix bundle sites and the lipid-protein interface. This article is part of the Special Issue entitled 'The Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor: From Molecular Biology to Cognition'.
Keywords: Alcohol; Allosterism; Barbiturates; Mutagenesis; Photolabel; Propofol.
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