Excitable membranes have the special ability of changing rapidly and reversibly their permeability to ions, thereby controlling the ion movements that carry the electric currents propagating nerve impulses. Acetylcholine (ACh) is the specific signal which is released by excitation and is recognized by a specific protein, the ACh-receptor; it induces a conformational change, triggering off a sequence of reactions resulting in increased permeability. The hydrolysis of ACh by ACh-esterase restores the barrier to ions. The enzymes hydrolyzing and forming ACh and the receptor protein are present in the various types of excitable membranes. Properties of the two proteins directly associated with electrical activity, receptor and esterase, will be described in this and subsequent lectures. ACh-esterase has been shown to be located within the excitable membranes. Potent enzyme inhibitors block electrical activity demonstrating the essential role in this function. The enzyme has been recently crystallized and some protein properties will be described. The monocellular electroplax preparation offers a uniquely favorable material for analyzing the properties of the ACh-receptor and its relation to function. The essential role of the receptor in electrical activity has been demonstrated with specific receptor inhibitors. Recent data show the basically similar role of ACh in the axonal and junctional membranes; the differences of electrical events and pharmacological actions are due to variations of shape, structural organization, and environment.

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