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J Mol Neurosci. 2010 Jan;40(1-2):77-86. doi: 10.1007/s12031-009-9261-0. Epub 2009 Aug 12.

Tricks of perspective: insights and limitations to the study of macroscopic currents for the analysis of nAChR activation and desensitization.

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Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, College of Medicine, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32610-0267, USA.


Activation, inactivation, and desensitization are key features of ion channel behavior. We endeavor to understand these processes at the level of the single molecules and extrapolate from such microscopic models the behavior of ion channels in contexts of cellular physiology and therapeutics. In the case of ligand-gated ion channels, such as nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs), it is also important to consider the nature of the dynamic changes in the chemical stimulus required for activation. The amplitude and time course of the agonist pulse provided to nAChR at a fast synapse will be vastly different from those of the ACh stimulus presented to presynaptic receptors in the brain and neither of these physiological processes will resemble the stimuli presented by nicotine self-administration or with systemic delivery of a therapeutic agent. Likewise, specific experimental protocols will provide unique stimulus profiles, which will impact the relationship between the macroscopic data and the underlying molecular processes. In this work, ion channel simulations intended to model heteromeric neuronal nAChR are conducted under varying conditions of agonist presentation, and the impact of a key microscopic process, desensitization, is studied on the macroscopic responses. With instantaneous jumps in agonist concentrations, the microscopic desensitization rate impacts essentially all aspects of the macroscopic responses, rise rates, decay rates, and both peak and steady-state currents. In contrast, with an agonist pulse like that used in Xenopus oocyte experiments, microscopic desensitization rates have a profound impact on peak current amplitude and very little effect on the kinetics of the macroscopic responses.

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