Nicotinic receptors are activated by a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine influences learning and memory, research at the University of Bristol finds.
Future studies on nicotinic receptors and acetylcholine may help novel dementia therapies identify a specific target.
Currently, the main treatments for Alzheimer's disease are drugs that increase levels of acetylcholine in the brain. The University of Bristol paper, published in Cell Reports, describes the role two main types of nicotinic receptor (alpha-7 and alpha-4B2 receptors) play in long-term memory retrieval and encoding - and the impact of acetylcholine on these receptors.
Professor of Cellular Neuroscience, Zafar Bashir, and PHD student, Marie Sabec, in the School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience, have demonstrated for the first time that both types of nicotinic receptor are essential for long-term associative recognition in rats.
What's more, the study also found that each nicotinic receptor subtype was responsible for distinct aspects of memory. The initial encoding of information ("learning") was dependent on the alpha-7 nicotinic receptor, and subsequent memory retrieval ("remembering") relied on the alpha-4B2 receptor.
Prof. Bashir commented on the findings:
"Learning is thought to rely on changes in the strength of communication between neurons. In this study we have shown that the alpha-7 nicotinic receptors enhance communication between the hippocampus and frontal cortex but alpha-4B2 nicotinic receptors decrease communication between these regions. Therefore, acetylcholine acting on different subtypes of nicotinic receptor in the frontal brain can enhance or depress neural communication for the learning and remembering of long-term memory, respectively.
"These findings could have significant implications for the way stimulation of acetylcholine is used to treat Alzheimer's. If drugs can be developed to target the individual nicotinic receptors, responsible for different aspects of long-term memory, we could see much more targeted and effective therapies for dementia."