The role of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the mechanisms of anesthesia

Edömer Tassonyi, Eric Charpantier, Dominique Muller, Lionel Dumont, Daniel Bertrand

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

118 Citations (Scopus)


Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are members of the ligand-gated ion channel superfamily, that includes also gamma-amino-butiric-acidA, glycine, and 5-hydroxytryptamine3 receptors. Functional nicotinic acetylcholine receptors result from the association of five subunits each contributing to the pore lining. The major neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are heterologous pentamers of α4β2 subunits (brain), or α3β4 subunits (autonomic ganglia). Another class of neuronal receptors that are found both in the central and peripheral nervous system is the homomeric α7 receptor. The muscle receptor subtypes comprise of αβδγ (embryonal) or αβδε (adult) subunits. Although nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are not directly involved in the hypnotic component of anesthesia, it is possible that modulation of central nicotinic transmission by volatile agents contributes to analgesia. The main effect of anesthetic agents on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors is inhibitory. Volatile anesthetics and ketamine are the most potent inhibitors both at α4β2 and α3β4 receptors with clinically relevant IC50 values. Neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are more sensitive to anesthetics than their muscle counterparts, with the exception of the α7 receptor. Several intravenous anesthetics such as barbiturates, etomidate, and propofol exert also an inhibitory effect on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, but only at concentrations higher than those necessary for anesthesia. Usual clinical concentrations of curare cause competitive inhibition of muscle nicotinic acetylcholine receptors while higher concentrations may induce open channel blockade. Neuronal nAChRs like α4β2 and α3β4 are inhibited by atracurium, a curare derivative, but at low concentrations the α4β2 receptor is activated. Inhibition of sympathetic transmission by clinically relevant concentrations of some anesthetic agents is probably one of the factors involved in arterial hypotension during anesthesia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)133-150
Number of pages18
JournalBrain Research Bulletin
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jan 15 2002


  • Anesthesia
  • Anesthetic agents
  • Molecular mechanisms
  • Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)

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