Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors: Conventional and unconventional ligands and signaling

Neuropharmacology. 2020 May 15;168:108021. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2020.108021. Epub 2020 Feb 28.


Postsynaptic nAChRs in the peripheral nervous system are critical for neuromuscular and autonomic neurotransmission. Pre- and peri-synaptic nAChRs in the brain modulate neurotransmission and are responsible for the addictive effects of nicotine. Subtypes of nAChRs in lymphocytes and non-synaptic locations may modulate inflammation and other cellular functions. All AChRs that function as ligand-gated ion channels are formed from five homologous subunits organized to form a central cation channel whose opening is regulated by ACh bound at extracellular subunit interfaces. nAChR subtype subunit composition can range from α7 homomers to α4β2α6β2β3 heteromers. Subtypes differ in affinities for ACh and other agonists like nicotine and in efficiencies with which their channels are opened and desensitized. Subtypes also differ in affinities for antagonists and for positive and negative allosteric modulators. Some agonists are "silent" with respect to channel opening, and AChRs may be able to signal metabotropic pathways by releasing G-proteins independent of channel opening. Electrophysiological studies that can resolve single-channel openings and molecular genetic approaches have allowed characterization of the structures of ligand binding sites, the cation channel, and the linkages between them, as well as the organization of AChR subunits and their contributions to function. Crystallography and cryo-electron-microscopy are providing increasing insights into the structures and functions of AChRs. However, much remains to be learned about both AChR structure and function, the in vivo functional roles of some AChR subtypes, and the development of better pharmacological tools directed at AChRs to treat addiction, pain, inflammation, and other medically important issues. This article is part of the special issue on 'Contemporary Advances in Nicotine Neuropharmacology'.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Binding Sites / drug effects
  • Binding Sites / physiology
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / drug therapy
  • Inflammation / metabolism
  • Ligands
  • Nicotinic Agonists / metabolism*
  • Nicotinic Agonists / pharmacology
  • Nicotinic Agonists / therapeutic use
  • Nicotinic Antagonists / metabolism*
  • Nicotinic Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Nicotinic Antagonists / therapeutic use
  • Pain / drug therapy
  • Pain / metabolism
  • Protein Structure, Secondary
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / chemistry
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*


  • Ligands
  • Nicotinic Agonists
  • Nicotinic Antagonists
  • Receptors, Nicotinic