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Cell Mol Neurobiol. 1989 Jun;9(2):141-78.

Desensitization of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor: molecular mechanisms and effect of modulators.

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Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of California, Davis 95616.


1. Loss of response after prolonged or repeated application of stimulus is generally termed desensitization. A wide variety of phenomena occurring in living organisms falls under this general definition of desensitization. There are two main types of desensitization processes: specific and non-specific. 2. Desensitization of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor is triggered by prolonged or repeated exposure to agonists and results in inactivation of its ion channel. It is a case of specific desensitization and is an intrinsic molecular property of the receptor. 3. Desensitization of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor at the neuromuscular junction was first reported by Katz and Thesleff in 1957. Desensitization of the receptor has been demonstrated by rapid kinetic techniques and also by the characteristic "burst kinetics" obtained from single-channel recordings of receptor activity in native as well as in reconstituted membranes. In spite of a number of studies, the detailed molecular mechanism of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor desensitization is not known with certainty. The progress of desensitization is accompanied by an increase in affinity of the receptor for its agonist. This change in affinity is attributed to a conformational change of the receptor, as detected by spectroscopic and kinetic studies. A four-state general model is consistent with the major experimental observations. 4. Desensitization of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor can be potentially modulated by exogenous and endogenous substances and by covalent modifications of the receptor structure. Modulators include the noncompetitive blockers, calcium, the thymic hormone peptides (thymopoietin and thymopentin), substance P, the calcitonin gene-related peptide, and receptor phosphorylation. Phosphorylation is an important posttranslational covalent modification that is correlated with the regulation and desensitization of the receptor through various protein kinases. 5. Although the physiological significance of desensitization of the nicotinic receptor is not yet fully understood, desensitization of receptors probably plays a significant role in the operation of the neuronal networks associated in memory and learning processes. Desensitization of the nicotinic receptor could also possibly be related to the neuromuscular disease, myasthenia gravis.

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