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Br J Pharmacol. 2012 May;166(2):476-85. doi: 10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01779.x.

A novel GABA(A) receptor pharmacology: drugs interacting with the α(+) β(-) interface.

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Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Center for Brain Research, Medical University Vienna, Vienna, Austria.


GABA(A) receptors are ligand-gated chloride channels composed of five subunits that can belong to different subunit classes. The existence of 19 different subunits gives rise to a multiplicity of GABA(A) receptor subtypes with distinct subunit composition; regional, cellular and subcellular distribution; and pharmacology. Most of these receptors are composed of two α, two β and one γ2 subunits. GABA(A) receptors are the site of action of a variety of pharmacologically and clinically important drugs, such as benzodiazepines, barbiturates, neuroactive steroids, anaesthetics and convulsants. Whereas GABA acts at the two extracellular β(+) α(-) interfaces of GABA(A) receptors, the allosteric modulatory benzodiazepines interact with the extracellular α(+) γ2(-) interface. In contrast, barbiturates, neuroactive steroids and anaesthetics seem to interact with solvent accessible pockets in the transmembrane domain. Several benzodiazepine site ligands have been identified that selectively interact with GABA(A) receptor subtypes containing α2βγ2, α3βγ2 or α5βγ2 subunits. This indicates that the different α subunit types present in these receptors convey sufficient structural differences to the benzodiazepine binding site to allow specific interaction with certain benzodiazepine site ligands. Recently, a novel drug binding site was identified at the α(+) β(-) interface. This binding site is homologous to the benzodiazepine binding site at the α(+) γ2(-) interface and is thus also strongly influenced by the type of α subunit present in the receptor. Drugs interacting with this binding site cannot directly activate but only allosterically modulate GABA(A) receptors. The possible importance of such drugs addressing a spectrum of receptor subtypes completely different from that of benzodiazepines is discussed.

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