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J Physiol. 2008 Feb 15;586(4):1105-15. Epub 2007 Dec 20.

Aromatic residues at position 55 of rat alpha7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are critical for maintaining rapid desensitization.

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Laboratory of Neurobiology, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services PO Box 12233, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709, USA.


The rat alpha7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) can undergo rapid onset of desensitization; however, the mechanisms of desensitization are largely unknown. The contribution of a tryptophan (W) residue at position 55 of the rat alpha7 nAChR subunit, which lies within the beta2 strand, was studied by mutating it to other hydrophobic and/or aromatic amino acids, followed by voltage-clamp experiments in Xenopus oocytes. When mutated to alanine, the alpha7-W55A nAChR desensitized more slowly, and recovered from desensitization more rapidly, than wildtype alpha7 nAChRs. The contribution of desensitization was validated by kinetic modelling. Mutating W55 to other aromatic residues (phenylalanine or tyrosine) had no significant effect on the kinetics of desensitization, whereas mutation to various hydrophobic residues (alanine, cysteine or valine) significantly decreased the rate of onset and increased the rate of recovery from desensitization. To gain insight into possible structural rearrangements during desensitization, we probed the accessibility of W55 by mutating W55 to cysteine (alpha7-W55C) and testing the ability of various sulfhydryl reagents to react with this cysteine. Several positively charged sulfhydryl reagents blocked ACh-induced responses for alpha7-W55C nAChRs, whereas a neutral sulfhydryl reagent potentiated responses; residue C55 was not accessible for modification in the desensitized state. These data suggest that W55 plays an important role in both the onset and recovery from desensitization in the rat alpha7 nAChR, and that aromatic residues at position 55 are critical for maintaining rapid desensitization. Furthermore, these data suggest that W55 may be a potential target for modulatory agents operating via hydrophobic interactions.

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