Nicotine activates the chemosensory cation channel TRPA1


Topical application of nicotine, as used in nicotine replacement therapies, causes irritation of the mucosa and skin. This reaction has been attributed to activation of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) in chemosensory neurons. In contrast with this view, we found that the chemosensory cation channel transient receptor potential A1 (TRPA1) is crucially involved in nicotine-induced irritation. We found that micromolar concentrations of nicotine activated heterologously expressed mouse and human TRPA1. Nicotine acted in a membrane-delimited manner, stabilizing the open state(s) and destabilizing the closed state(s) of the channel. In the presence of the general nAChR blocker hexamethonium, nociceptive neurons showed nicotine-induced responses that were strongly reduced in TRPA1-deficient mice. Finally, TRPA1 mediated the mouse airway constriction reflex to nasal instillation of nicotine. The identification of TRPA1 as a nicotine target suggests that existing models of nicotine-induced irritation should be revised and may facilitate the development of smoking cessation therapies with less adverse effects.

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Figure 1: Activation of TRPA1 by nicotine.
Figure 2: Nicotine activates TRPA1 in cell-free inside-out patches.
Figure 3: Cross desensitization of TRPA1 activation by nicotine and mustard oil.
Figure 4: TRPA1 activation is prevented by the nAChR inhibitor mecamylamine, but is unaffected by hexamethonium.
Figure 5: Nicotine activates TRPA1 in mouse trigeminal ganglion neurons.
Figure 6: TRPA1 mediates the airway constriction reflex triggered by nasal instillation of nicotine and mustard oil.
Figure 7: Menthol inhibits nicotine-induced activation of TRPA1.


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We are grateful to K.Y. Kwan for providing us with the Trpa1 knockout mice, M.R. Sepúlveda for helpful discussions, and V. De Vooght and P. Hoet for help in some plethysmography experiments. The expert technical assistance of J. Prenen is greatly acknowledged. The mTRPA1 CHO cell line was kindly provided by A. Patapoutian. K.T. and J.A.J.V. were supported by a postdoctoral mandate from KU Leuven and are currently postdoctoral fellows of the Research Foundation–Flanders (Fonds voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek, FWO). M.G. and W.E. are doctoral FWO fellows. V.M.M was supported by Spanish CONSOLIDER-INGENIO 2010 CSD2007-00023. This work was supported by grants from Inter-university Attraction Poles Programme (Belgian Science Policy, P6/28), FWO (G.0172.03 and G.0565.07), the Research Council of the KU Leuven (GOA 2004/07) and the Flemish Government (Excellentiefinanciering, EF/95/010).

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K.T. carried out patch-clamp and Ca2+-imaging recordings, plethysmography experiments, analyzed the data, wrote the paper and supervised the project. M.G. and Y.K. performed patch-clamp and Ca2+-imaging recordings. V.M.M. carried out patch-clamp and Ca2+-imaging recordings in neurons. J.A.J.V. performed plethysmography experiments. N.D. carried out Ca2+-imaging recordings in neurons and edited the paper. W.E. performed Ca2+-imaging and mouse experiments and edited the paper. M.B. carried out mouse genotyping. A.J. performed the molecular biology work. R.V. supervised mouse genotyping and edited the paper. F.V. edited the paper and supervised the project. B. Nemery edited the paper and supervised the plethysmography experiments. B. Nilius edited the paper and supervised the project. T.V. analyzed the data, wrote the paper and supervised the project.

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Correspondence to Karel Talavera.

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Talavera, K., Gees, M., Karashima, Y. et al. Nicotine activates the chemosensory cation channel TRPA1. Nat Neurosci 12, 1293–1299 (2009).

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