Ionotropic receptors, also called neurotransmitter-gated or ligand-gated channels, are ion channels that open in response to the binding of a neurotransmitter. They are primarily located along the dendrites or cell body, but they can be present anywhere along the neuron if there is a synapse. Ligand-gated channels are important for receiving incoming information from other neurons.
Although ionotropic receptors are ion channels, they open in a different way than the voltage-gated ion channels needed for propagation of the action potential. The ionotropic receptors are ligand-gated, which means that a specific molecule, such as a neurotransmitter, must bind to the receptor to cause the channel to open and allow ion flow. As seen in previous chapters, the voltage-gated channels open in response to the membrane potential reaching threshold.
The receptors can only be opened by a specific ligand. Neurotransmitters and receptors fit together like a lock and key; only certain neurotransmitters are able to bind to and open certain receptors.
Glutamate is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system and opens non-selective cation channels. There are three subtypes of glutamate receptors. The AMPA (α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid) and kainate receptors allow both sodium and potassium to cross the membrane. Although potassium can leave the cell when the receptors open, the electrochemical gradient driving sodium ion movement is stronger than the gradient driving potassium movement, resulting in a depolarization of the membrane potential.
The NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptor requires the binding of glutamate to open, but it is also dependent on voltage. When the membrane potential is below, at, or near rest, a magnesium ion blocks the open NMDA receptor and prevents other ions from moving through the channel. Once the cell depolarizes, the magnesium block is expelled from the receptor, which allows sodium, potassium, and calcium to cross the membrane. The voltage change needed to open the NMDA receptor is usually a result of AMPA receptor activation. Released glutamate binds to both AMPA and NMDA receptors, sodium influx occurs through open AMPA channels, which depolarizes the cell enough to expel the magnesium ion and allow ion flow through the NMDA receptors.
Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptors
Like glutamate receptors, nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are non-selective cation channels. Nicotinic receptors, though, are located primarily outside of the central nervous system and are primarily used at the neuromuscular junction.
GABA and Glycine Receptors
GABA and glycine receptors are chloride channels. Since an increase chloride permeability across the membrane is inhibitory, the binding of GABA or glycine to their respective ionotropic receptor will cause inhibition.
Ionotropic Receptors Cause Postsynaptic Potentials
Postsynaptic potentials (Chapter 5) are a result of ionotropic receptors opening. Excitatory ionotropic receptors increase sodium permeability across the membrane, whereas inhibitory ionotropic receptors increase chloride permeability. Ion flow through the ionotropic receptors follows the same principles as other ion channels covered so far.
Equilibrium Potential Review
Previously, we covered ion movement through voltage-gated channels and discussed that electrochemical gradients will drive ion movement toward equilibrium. The neuron’s membrane potential at which the chemical and electrical gradients balance and equilibrium occurs is the ion’s equilibrium potential.
This same principle is used for ion movement through ionotropic receptors. The membrane potential at which ion flow through a receptor is at equilibrium is called the reversal potential of the receptor. The direction of ion movement can be predicted if the reversal potential of the receptor is known.
GABA and Glycine – Receptors Selective to One Ion
When an ionotropic receptor that is selective to only one ion opens, the reversal potential of the receptor is the same as the equilibrium potential of the ion. GABA and glycine receptors only allow chloride ions to cross the membrane. Therefore, the reversal potential of a GABA or glycine receptor is equal to the equilibrium potential of chloride, and the binding of GABA or glycine to their respective ionotropic receptor will cause an inhibitory postsynaptic potential (IPSP).
Glutamate – Reversal Potential for Receptors that are Non-Selective
However, if the ionotropic receptor allows the flow of more than one ion, or is non-selective, the reversal potential of the receptor does not equal the equilibrium potential of either ion but is somewhere in between. The equilibrium potential of sodium is approximately +60 mV, and the equilibrium potential of potassium is approximately -80 mV. A glutamate receptor is a non-selective cation channel that allows the flow of both ions, and the reversal potential of the receptor is 0 mV. This means that if the neuron’s membrane potential is negative, the driving forces acting on sodium are stronger than the driving forces acting on potassium, so more sodium will flow in than potassium will flow out, and the membrane potential will depolarize, causing an excitatory postsynaptic potential (EPSP).
If the membrane potential reached the reversal potential of the glutamate receptor, the electrochemical gradients acting on sodium and potassium would balance, so overall ion flow in both directions would be equal, and the membrane potential would not change.
- Ionotropic receptors are ligand-gated ion channels that open when a specific neurotransmitter binds
- For receptors selective to one ion, the reversal potential equals the ion’s equilibrium potential
- For receptors not selective for only one ion, the reversal potential is a value between the ions’ equilibrium potentials
- Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter that opens non-selective cation channels that allow the influx of sodium, causing an EPSP
- GABA and glycine are inhibitory neurotransmitters that open chloride channels, causing an IPSP