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Pharmacol Ther. 2014 Nov;144(2):162-91. doi: 10.1016/j.pharmthera.2014.05.012. Epub 2014 Jun 2.

The purinergic neurotransmitter revisited: a single substance or multiple players?

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  • 1Department of Physiology and Cell Biology, University of Nevada School of Medicine, Reno, NV 89557, United States. Electronic address:
  • 2Department of Physiology and Cell Biology, University of Nevada School of Medicine, Reno, NV 89557, United States.


The past half century has witnessed tremendous advances in our understanding of extracellular purinergic signaling pathways. Purinergic neurotransmission, in particular, has emerged as a key contributor in the efficient control mechanisms in the nervous system. The identity of the purine neurotransmitter, however, remains controversial. Identifying it is difficult because purines are present in all cell types, have a large variety of cell sources, and are released via numerous pathways. Moreover, studies on purinergic neurotransmission have relied heavily on indirect measurements of integrated postjunctional responses that do not provide direct information for neurotransmitter identity. This paper discusses experimental support for adenosine 5'-triphosphate (ATP) as a neurotransmitter and recent evidence for possible contribution of other purines, in addition to or instead of ATP, in chemical neurotransmission in the peripheral, enteric and central nervous systems. Sites of release and action of purines in model systems such as vas deferens, blood vessels, urinary bladder and chromaffin cells are discussed. This is preceded by a brief discussion of studies demonstrating storage of purines in synaptic vesicles. We examine recent evidence for cell type targets (e.g., smooth muscle cells, interstitial cells, neurons and glia) for purine neurotransmitters in different systems. This is followed by brief discussion of mechanisms of terminating the action of purine neurotransmitters, including extracellular nucleotide hydrolysis and possible salvage and reuptake in the cell. The significance of direct neurotransmitter release measurements is highlighted. Possibilities for involvement of multiple purines (e.g., ATP, ADP, NAD(+), ADP-ribose, adenosine, and diadenosine polyphosphates) in neurotransmission are considered throughout.


ADP-ribose; ATP; Adenosine; NAD; Nervous system; Purinergic neurotransmission

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