Nicotine binding to brain receptors requires a strong cation–π interaction

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Nicotine addiction begins with high-affinity binding of nicotine to acetylcholine (ACh) receptors in the brain. The end result is over 4,000,000 smoking-related deaths annually worldwide and the largest source of preventable mortality in developed countries. Stress reduction, pleasure, improved cognition and other central nervous system effects are strongly associated with smoking. However, if nicotine activated ACh receptors found in muscle as potently as it does brain ACh receptors, smoking would cause intolerable and perhaps fatal muscle contractions. Despite extensive pharmacological, functional and structural studies of ACh receptors, the basis for the differential action of nicotine on brain compared with muscle ACh receptors has not been determined. Here we show that at the α4β2 brain receptors thought to underlie nicotine addiction, the high affinity for nicotine is the result of a strong cation–π interaction to a specific aromatic amino acid of the receptor, TrpB. In contrast, the low affinity for nicotine at the muscle-type ACh receptor is largely due to the fact that this key interaction is absent, even though the immediate binding site residues, including the key amino acid TrpB, are identical in the brain and muscle receptors. At the same time a hydrogen bond from nicotine to the backbone carbonyl of TrpB is enhanced in the neuronal receptor relative to the muscle type. A point mutation near TrpB that differentiates α4β2 and muscle-type receptors seems to influence the shape of the binding site, allowing nicotine to interact more strongly with TrpB in the neuronal receptor. ACh receptors are established therapeutic targets for Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, smoking cessation, pain, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, epilepsy, autism and depression1. Along with solving a chemical mystery in nicotine addiction, our results provide guidance for efforts to develop drugs that target specific types of nicotinic receptors.

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Figure 1: The binding site of AChBP, thought to resemble that of nAChRs.
Figure 2: Agonists and unnatural amino acids considered here.
Figure 3: Nonsense suppression in the α4β2 receptor.
Figure 4: Fluorination plots.
Figure 5: Single-channel recordings from wild-type α4β2 (conventional expression) and the F 3 -Trp mutant (nonsense suppression) at site B, with nicotine applied at EC 50 values (0.080 and 1.2 μM, respectively).


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We thank B. N. Cohen for advice on single-channel recording and analysis. This work was supported by the NIH (NS 34407; NS 11756) and the California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program of the University of California, grant number 16RT-0160. J.A.P.S. was partially supported by an NRSA training grant.

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Correspondence to Dennis A. Dougherty.

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