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Subcell Biochem. 2010;51:467-87. doi: 10.1007/978-90-481-8622-8_17.

Cholesterol effects on nicotinic acetylcholine receptor: cellular aspects.

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UNESCO Chair of Biophysics and Molecular Neurobiology, Instituto de Investigaciones Bioquímicas de Bahía Blanca, Bahía Blanca, Argentina.


Cholesterol is an essential partner of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (AChR). It is not only an abundant component of the postsynaptic membrane but also affects the stability of the receptor protein in the membrane, its supramolecular organization and function. In the absence of innervation, early on in ontogenetic development of the muscle cell, embryonic AChRs occur in the form of diffusely dispersed molecules. At embryonic day 13, receptors organize in the form of small aggregates. This organization can be mimicked in mammalian cells in culture.Trafficking to the plasmalemma is a cholesterol-dependent process. Receptors acquire association with the sterol as early as the endoplasmic reticulum and the Golgi apparatus. Once AChRs reach the cell surface, their stability is also highly dependent on cholesterol levels. Acute cholesterol depletion reduces the number of receptor domains by accelerating the rate of endocytosis. In muscle cells, AChRs are internalized via a recently discovered dynamin- and clathrin-independent, cytoskeleton-dependent endocytic mechanism. Unlike other endocytic pathways, cholesterol depletion accelerates internalization and re-routes AChR endocytosis to an Arf6-dependent pathway. Cholesterol depletion also results in ion channel gain-of-function of the remaining cell-surface AChRs, whereas cholesterol enrichment has the opposite effect.Wide-field microscopy shows AChR clusters as diffraction-limited puncta of approximately 200 nm diameter. Stimulated emission depletion (STED) fluorescence microscopy resolves these puncta into nanoclusters with an average diameter of approximately 55 nm. Exploiting the enhanced resolution, the effect of acute cholesterol depletion can be shown to alter the short- and long-range organization of AChR nanoclusters. In the short range, AChRs form bigger nanoclusters. On larger scales (0.5-3.5 mum) nanocluster distribution becomes non-random, attributable to the cholesterol-related abolition of cytoskeletal physical barriers normally preventing the lateral diffusion of AChR nanoclusters. The dependence of AChR numbers at the cell surface on membrane cholesterol raises the possibility that cholesterol depletion leads to AChR conformational changes that alter its stability and its long-range dynamic association with other AChR nanoclusters, accelerate its endocytosis, and transiently affect the channel kinetics of those receptors remaining at the surface. Cholesterol content at the plasmalemma may thus homeostatically modulate AChR dynamics, cell-surface organization and lifetime of receptor nanodomains, and fine tune the ion permeation process.

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