GABAA receptors (GABA(A)Rs) mediate rapid inhibitory transmission in the brain. GABA(A)Rs are ligand-gated chloride ion channel proteins and exist in about a dozen or more heteropentameric subtypes exhibiting variable age and brain regional localization and thus participation in differing brain functions and diseases. GABA(A)Rs are also subject to modulation by several chemotypes of allosteric ligands that help define structure and function, including subtype definition. The channel blocker picrotoxin identified a noncompetitive channel blocker site in GABA(A)Rs. This ligand site is located in the transmembrane channel pore, whereas the GABA agonist site is in the extracellular domain at subunit interfaces, a site useful for low energy coupled conformational changes of the functional channel domain. Two classes of pharmacologically important allosteric modulatory ligand binding sites reside in the extracellular domain at modified agonist sites at other subunit interfaces: the benzodiazepine site and the high-affinity, relevant to intoxication, ethanol site. The benzodiazepine site is specific for certain GABA(A)R subtypes, mainly synaptic, while the ethanol site is found at a modified benzodiazepine site on different, extrasynaptic, subtypes. In the transmembrane domain are allosteric modulatory ligand sites for diverse chemotypes of general anesthetics: the volatile and intravenous agents, barbiturates, etomidate, propofol, long-chain alcohols, and neurosteroids. The last are endogenous positive allosteric modulators. X-ray crystal structures of prokaryotic and invertebrate pentameric ligand-gated ion channels, and the mammalian GABA(A)R protein, allow homology modeling of GABA(A)R subtypes with the various ligand sites located to suggest the structure and function of these proteins and their pharmacological modulation.
Keywords: Anxiolytics; Chloride channels; Convulsants; Ethanol; GABA receptors; General anesthetics; Ligand-gated ion channels; Positive allosteric modulators.
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