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PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e55047. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055047. Epub 2013 Jan 29.

Contrasting properties of α7-selective orthosteric and allosteric agonists examined on native nicotinic acetylcholine receptors.

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  • 1Department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology, University College London, London, United Kingdom.


Subtype-selective ligands are important tools for the pharmacological characterisation of neurotransmitter receptors. This is particularly the case for nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs), given the heterogeneity of their subunit composition. In addition to agonists and antagonists that interact with the extracellular orthosteric nAChR binding site, a series of nAChR allosteric modulators have been identified that interact with a distinct transmembrane site. Here we report studies conducted with three pharmacologically distinct nicotinic ligands, an orthosteric agonist (compound B), a positive allosteric modulator (TQS) and an allosteric agonist (4BP-TQS). The primary focus of the work described in this study is to examine the suitability of these compounds for the characterisation of native neuronal receptors (both rat and human). However, initial experiments were conducted on recombinant nAChRs demonstrating the selectivity of these three compounds for α7 nAChRs. In patch-clamp recordings on rat primary hippocampal neurons we found that all these compounds displayed pharmacological properties that mimicked closely those observed on recombinant α7 nAChRs. However, it was not possible to detect functional responses with compound B, an orthosteric agonist, using a fluorescent intracellular calcium assay on either rat hippocampal neurons or with human induced pluripotent stem cell-derived neurons (iCell neurons). This is, presumably, due to the rapid desensitisation of α7 nAChR that is induced by orthosteric agonists. In contrast, clear agonist-evoked responses were observed in fluorescence-based assays with the non-desensitising allosteric agonist 4BP-TQS and also when compound B was co-applied with the non-desensitising positive allosteric modulator TQS. In summary, we have demonstrated the suitability of subtype-selective orthosteric and allosteric ligands for the pharmacological identification and characterisation of native nAChRs and the usefulness of ligands that minimise receptor desensitisation for the characterisation of α7 nAChRs in fluorescence-based assays.

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