Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and nicotine addiction: A brief introduction

Neuropharmacology. 2020 Oct 15:177:108256. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2020.108256. Epub 2020 Jul 29.


Nicotine is a highly addictive drug found in tobacco that drives its continued use despite the harmful consequences. The initiation of nicotine abuse involves the mesolimbic dopamine system, which contributes to the rewarding sensory stimuli and associative learning processes in the beginning stages of addiction. Nicotine binds to neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs), which come in a diverse collection of subtypes. The nAChRs that contain the α4 and β2 subunits, often in combination with the α6 subunit, are particularly important for nicotine's ability to increase midbrain dopamine neuron firing rates and phasic burst firing. Chronic nicotine exposure results in numerous neuroadaptations, including the upregulation of particular nAChR subtypes associated with long-term desensitization of the receptors. When nicotine is no longer present, for example during attempts to quit smoking, a withdrawal syndrome develops. The expression of physical withdrawal symptoms depends mainly on the α2, α3, α5, and β4 nicotinic subunits in the epithalamic habenular complex and its target regions. Thus, nicotine affects diverse neural systems and an array of nAChR subtypes to mediate the overall addiction process. This article is part of the special issue on 'Contemporary Advances in Nicotine Neuropharmacology'.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Nicotine / administration & dosage
  • Nicotine / metabolism*
  • Nicotinic Agonists / administration & dosage
  • Nicotinic Agonists / metabolism
  • Nicotinic Antagonists / administration & dosage
  • Nicotinic Antagonists / metabolism
  • Protein Subunits / agonists
  • Protein Subunits / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Protein Subunits / chemistry
  • Protein Subunits / metabolism
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / chemistry
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / metabolism*
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / metabolism*
  • Tobacco Use Disorder / psychology


  • Nicotinic Agonists
  • Nicotinic Antagonists
  • Protein Subunits
  • Receptors, Nicotinic
  • Nicotine