Molecular studies of the neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptor family

Mol Neurobiol. 1987 Winter;1(4):281-337. doi: 10.1007/BF02935740.


Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors on neurons are part of a gene family that includes nicotinic acetylcholine receptors on skeletal muscles and neuronal alpha bungarotoxin-binding proteins that in many species, unlike receptors, do not have an acetylcholine-regulated cation channel. This gene superfamily of ligand-gated receptors also includes receptors for glycine and gamma-aminobutyric acid. Rapid progress on neuronal nicotinic receptors has recently been possible using monoclonal antibodies as probes for receptor proteins and cDNAs as probes for receptor genes. These studies are the primary focus of this review, although other aspects of these receptors are also considered. In birds and mammals, there are subtypes of neuronal nicotinic receptors. All of these receptors differ from nicotinic receptors of muscle pharmacologically (none bind alpha bungarotoxin, and some have very high affinity for nicotine), structurally (having only two types of subunits rather than four), and, in some cases, in functional role (some are located presynaptically). However, there are amino acid sequence homologies between the subunits of these receptors that suggest the location of important functional domains. Sequence homologies also suggest that the subunits of the proteins of this family all evolved from a common ancestral protein subunit. The ligand-gated ion channel characteristic of this superfamily is formed from multiple copies of homologous subunits. Conserved domains responsible for strong stereospecific association of the subunits are probably a fundamental organizing principle of the superfamily. Whereas the structure of muscle-type nicotinic receptors appears to have been established by the time of elasmobranchs and has evolved quite conservatively since then, the evolution of neuronal-type nicotinic receptors appears to be in more rapid flux. Certainly, the studies of these receptors are in rapid flux, with the availability of monoclonal antibody probes for localizing, purifying, and characterizing the proteins, and cDNA probes for determining sequences, localizing mRNAs, expressing functional receptors, and studying genetic regulation. The role of nicotinic receptors in neuromuscular transmission is well understood, but the role of nicotinic receptors in brain function is not. The current deluge of data using antibodies and cDNAs is beginning to come together nicely to describe the structure of these receptors. Soon, these techniques may combine with others to better reveal the functional roles of neuronal nicotinic receptors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Nervous System / metabolism*
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / genetics
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / physiology


  • Receptors, Nicotinic