Ligand binding to receptor proteins functions in signal transduction.


Roughly 10 small-molecule transmitters and over 50 recognized neuroactive peptides comprise the commonly recognized neurotransmitters, molecules involved in signalling between cells. A variety of macromolecules act as receptors for neurotransmitters and hormones (molecules that act at a distance from their production).

There exist numerous receptors for each neurotransmitter, so receptors play an important role in neurotransmission. Most neurotransmitter receptors belong to a class of proteins known as the serpentine receptors, or GPCRs, in which a characteristic trans-membrane structure spans the cell membrane seven times. Intracellular signalling is carried out by association of the neurotransmitter with G-proteins (small GTP-binding and hydrolyzing proteins), or with protein kinases, or by the receptor itself in the form of a ligand-gated ion channel (acetylcholine receptor). Neurotransmitter receptors are subject to ligand-induced desensitization whereby they become unresponsive upon prolonged exposure to their neurotransmitter. The NMDA receptor is a neural receptor that is expressed at excitatory glutamatergic synapses and is critical for normal brain function. At a cellular level, this receptor plays a pivotal role in triggering and controlling synaptic plasticity, and so is important for learning and memory.

Among the small-molecule neurotransmitters are: acetylcholine, 5 amines, and 3 or 4 amino acids. The purines adenosine, ATP, GTP, and their derivatives are also neurotransmitters. In addition to amines, amino acids, purines, and acetylcholine, fatty acids are candidates for neurotransmitter (endogenous canabinoid). The monoamine neurotransmitters include the catecholamines dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, which are derived from the amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine. Serotonin, or 5-HT is a monoamine product of the amino acid tryptophan. The hydrophilic vasoactive amine histamine is derived from the amino acid histidine. Aspartate, glutamate, and GABA are also derived from amino acids (aspartic acid, glutamic acid). Glycine is the smallest amino acid, and acts as a neurotransmitter.

The catecholamine neurotransmitter dopamine is a precursor in the biosynthetic pathway to the other catecholamine neurotransmitters epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). Dopamine is synthesized in the body (predominantly in neurons and adrenals) by the decarboxylation of l-dopa by the enzyme aromatic-L-amino-acid decarboxylase. Dopamine beta hydroxylase converts dopamine to norepinephrine, and phenylethanoamine N-methyl transferase converts norepinephrine to epinephrine.

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