UT Southwestern researchers today published in Nature atomic-scale blueprints of the most abundant class of brain nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. A structural understanding of the protein, found in neurons, could lead to new ways to treat nicotine addiction from smoking and vaping.
Three-dimensional structures of nicotinic acetylcholine receptor determined by cryo-EM, courtesy of Hibbs Lab. “When this receptor binds to either the neurotransmitter acetylcholine or to nicotine, it leads to activation of the neuron, which then sends signals to other neurons,” said Dr. Ryan Hibbs, corresponding author of the study and Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Biophysics with the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern. “This process of ‘chemical neurotransmission’ underlies all fast communication between neurons. This specific receptor is tightly linked to nicotine addiction.”
Researchers obtained the high-resolution structures using the University’s $22.5 million cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) facility, where samples are rapidly frozen to prevent the formation of damaging ice crystals and then viewed at minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit (cryogenic temperatures). UT Southwestern’s facility — which runs round-the-clock — is one of the world’s top facilities for cryo-EM structural biology.