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IUPAC name 2-Acetoxy-N,N,N-trimethylethanaminium
Abbreviation ACh
Sources motor neurons, parasympathetic nervous system, brain
Targets skeletal muscles, brain, many other organs
Receptors nicotinic, muscarinic
Agonists nicotine, muscarine, cholinesterase inhibitors
Antagonists tubocurarine, atropine
Precursor choline, acetyl-CoA
Synthesizing enzyme choline acetyltransferase
Metabolizing enzyme acetylcholinesterase
Database links
CAS Registry Number 51-84-3 YesY
PubChem CID: 187
DrugBank EXPT00412 YesY
ChemSpider 182 YesY
KEGG C01996 N

Acetylcholine is an organic chemical that functions in the brain and body of many types of animals, including humans, as a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other cells. Its name is derived from its chemical structure: it is an ester of acetic acid and choline. Parts in the body that use or are affected by acetylcholine are referred to as cholinergic. Substances that interfere with acetylcholine activity are called anticholinergics.

Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter used at the neuromuscular junction—in other words, it is the chemical that motor neurons of the nervous system release in order to activate muscles. This property means that drugs that affect cholinergic systems can have very dangerous effects ranging from paralysis to convulsions. Acetylcholine is also used as a neurotransmitter in the autonomic nervous system, both as an internal transmitter for the sympathetic nervous system and as the final product released by the parasympathetic nervous system.

Inside the brain acetylcholine functions as a neuromodulator—a chemical that alters the way other brain structures process information rather than a chemical used to transmit information from point to point. The brain contains a number of cholinergic areas, each with distinct functions. They play an important role in arousal, attention, and motivation.

Partly because of its muscle-activating function, but also because of its functions in the autonomic nervous system and brain, a large number of important drugs exert their effects by altering cholinergic transmission. Numerous venoms and toxins produced by plants, animals, and bacteria, as well as chemical nerve agents such as Sarin, cause harm by inactivating or hyperactivating muscles via their influences on the neuromuscular junction. Drugs that act on muscarinic acetylcholine receptors, such as atropine, can be poisonous in large quantities, but in smaller doses they are commonly used to treat certain heart conditions and eye problems. Scopolamine, which acts mainly on muscarinic receptors in the brain, can cause delirium and amnesia. The addictive qualities of nicotine derive from its effects on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the brain.


Acetylcholine has functions both in the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and in the central nervous system (CNS) as a neuromodulator. In the peripheral nervous system, acetylcholine activates muscles, and is a major neurotransmitter in the autonomic nervous system.

Cellular effects[edit]

Acetylcholine processing in a synapse. After release acetylcholine is broken down by the enzyme acetylcholinesterase.

Like many other biologically active substances, acetylcholine exerts its effects by binding to and activating receptors located on the surface of cells. There are two main classes of acetylcholine receptor, nicotinic and muscarinic. They are named for chemicals that can selectively activate each type of receptor without activating the other: muscarine is a compound found in the mushroom Amanita muscaria; nicotine is found in tobacco.

Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are ligand-gated ion channels permeable to sodium, potassium, and calcium ions. In other words, they are ion channels embedded in cell membranes, capable of switching from a closed to open state when acetylcholine binds to them; in the open state they allow ions to pass through. Nicotinic receptors come in two main types, known as muscle-type and neuronal-type. The muscle-type can be selectively blocked by curare, the neuronal-type by hexamethonium. The main location of muscle-type receptors is on muscle cells, as described in more detail below. Neuronal-type receptors are located in autonomic ganglia (both sympathetic and parasympathetic), and in the central nervous system.

Muscarinic acetylcholine receptors have a more complex mechanism, and affect target cells over a longer time frame. In mammals, five subtypes of muscarinic receptors have been identified, labeled M1 through M5. All of them function as G protein-coupled receptors, meaning that they exert their effects via a second messenger system. The M1, M3, and M5 subtypes are Gq-coupled; they increase intracellular levels of IP3 and calcium by activating phospholipase C. Their effect on target cells is usually excitatory. The M2 and M4 subtypes are Gi/Go-coupled; they decrease intracellular levels of cAMP
by inhibiting adenylate cyclase. Their effect on target cells is usually inhibitory. Muscarinic acetylcholine receptors are found in both the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system of the heart, lungs, upper gastrointestinal tract, and sweat glands.

Neuromuscular junction[edit]

Muscles contract when they receive signals from motor neurons. The neuromuscular junction is the site of the signal exchange. The steps of this process in vertebrates occur as follows: (1) The action potential reaches the axon terminal. (2) Calcium ions flow into the axon terminal. (3) Acetylcholine is released into the synaptic cleft. (4) Acetylcholine binds to postsynaptic receptors. (5) This binding causes ion channels to open and allows sodium ions to flow into the muscle cell. (6) The flow of sodium ions across the membrane into the muscle cell generates an action potential which induces muscle contraction. Labels: A: Motor neuron axon B: Axon terminal C. Synaptic cleft D. Muscle cell

Acetylcholine is the substance the nervous system uses to activate skeletal muscles, a kind of striated muscle. These are the muscles used for all types of voluntary movement, in contrast to smooth muscle tissue, which is involved in a range of involuntary activities such as movement of food through the gastrointestinal tract and constriction of blood vessels. Skeletal muscles are directly controlled by motor neurons located in the spinal cord or, in a few cases, the brainstem. These motor neurons send their axons through motor nerves, from which they emerge to connect to muscle fibers at a special type of synapse called the neuromuscular junction.

When a motor neuron generates an action potential, it travels rapidly along the nerve until it reaches the neuromuscular junction, where it initiates an electrochemical process that causes acetylcholine to be released into the space between the presynaptic terminal and the muscle fiber. The acetylcholine molecules then bind to nicotinic ion-channel receptors on the muscle cell membrane, causing the ion channels to open. Sodium ions then flow into the muscle cell, initiating a sequence of steps that finally produce muscle contraction.

Autonomic nervous system[edit]

Components and connections of the parasympathetic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system controls a wide range of involuntary and unconscious body functions. Its main branches are the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. Broadly speaking, the function of the sympathetic nervous system is to mobilize the body for action: the slogan often used for it is fight-or-flight. The function of the parasympathetic nervous system is to put the body in a state conducive to rest, regeneration, digestion, and reproduction: it is sometimes described using the slogans "rest and digest" or "feed and breed". Both branches use acetylcholine, but in different ways.

At a schematic level, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are both organized in essentially the same way: preganglionic neurons in the central nervous system send projections to neurons located in autonomic ganglia; these neurons then send output projections to virtually every tissue of the body. In both branches the internal connections—the projections from the central nervous system to the autonomic ganglia—use acetylcholine as neurotransmitter, and the receptors it activates are of the nicotinic type. In the parasympathetic nervous system the output connections—the projections from ganglion neurons to tissues that don't belong to the nervous system—also release acetylcholine, acting on muscarinic receptors. In the sympathetic nervous system the output connections mainly release noradrenaline, although acetylcholine is released at a few points, such as the sudomotor innervation of the sweat glands.

Central nervous system[edit]

Micrograph of the nucleus basalis (of Meynert), which produces acetylcholine in the CNS. LFB-HE stain.

In the central nervous system, ACh has a variety of effects as a neuromodulator upon plasticity, arousal and reward. ACh has an important role in the enhancement of sensory perceptions when we wake up[1] and in sustaining attention.[2]

Damage to the cholinergic (acetylcholine-producing) system in the brain has been shown to be plausibly associated with the memory deficits associated with Alzheimer's disease.[3] ACh has also been shown to promote REM sleep.[4]

In the brainstem acetylcholine originates from the Pedunculopontine nucleus and laterodorsal tegmental nucleus collectively known as the mesopontine tegmentum area or pontomesencephalotegmental complex.[5][6] In the basal forebrain, it originates from the basal optic nucleus of Meynert and medial septal nucleus:

In addition, ACh acts as an important internal transmitter in the striatum, which is part of the basal ganglia. It is released by cholinergic interneurons. In humans, non-human primates and rodents, these interneurons respond to salient environmental stimuli with stereotyped responses that are temporally aligned with the responses of dopaminergic neurons of the substantia nigra.[7][8]

Decision making[edit]


One well-supported function of acetylcholine (ACh) in cortex is increased responsiveness to sensory stimuli, a form of attention. An additional suggested function of ACh in cortex is suppression of intracortical information transmission. Some forms of learning and plasticity in cortex appear dependent on the presence of acetylcholine. ACh has been implicated in the reporting of expected uncertainty in the environment[9] based both on the suggested functions listed above and results recorded while subjects perform a behavioral cuing task.

Diseases and disorders[edit]

Myasthenia gravis[edit]

The disease myasthenia gravis, characterized by muscle weakness and fatigue, occurs when the body inappropriately produces antibodies against acetylcholine nicotinic receptors, and thus inhibits proper acetylcholine signal transmission. Over time, the motor end plate is destroyed. Drugs that competitively inhibit acetylcholinesterase (e.g., neostigmine, physostigmine, or primarily pyridostigmine) are effective in treating this disorder. They allow endogenously released acetylcholine more time to interact with its respective receptor before being inactivated by acetylcholinesterase in the synaptic cleft (the space between nerve and muscle).


Blocking, hindering or mimicking the action of acetylcholine has many uses in medicine. Drugs acting on the acetylcholine system are either agonists to the receptors, stimulating the system, or antagonists, inhibiting it. Acetylcholine receptor agonists and antagonists can either have an effect directly on the receptors or exert their effects indirectly, e.g., by affecting the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which degrades the receptor ligand. Agonists increase the level of receptor activation, antagonists reduce it.

Acetylcholine itself does not have therapeutic value as a drug for intravenous administration because of its multi-faceted action and rapid inactivation by cholinesterase. However, it is used in the form of eye drops to cause constriction of the pupil during cataract surgery, which facilitates quick post-operational recovery.


Imitates ACh, activating ACh receptors


Atropine is a non-selective competitive antagonist with Acetylcholine at muscarinic receptors.

Cholinesterase inhibitors[edit]

Many ACh receptor agonists work indirectly by inhibiting the enzyme acetylcholinesterase. The resulting accumulation of acetylcholine causes continuous stimulation of the muscles, glands, and central nervous system, which can result in fatal convulsions if the dose is high.

They are examples of enzyme inhibitors, and increase the action of acetylcholine by delaying its degradation; some have been used as nerve agents (Sarin and VX nerve gas) or pesticides (organophosphates and the carbamates). Many toxins and venoms produced by plants and animals also contain cholinesterase inhibitors. In clinical use, they are administered in low doses to reverse the action of muscle relaxants, to treat myasthenia gravis, and to treat symptoms of Alzheimer's disease (rivastigmine, which increases cholinergic activity in the brain).


Main article: Curare

Synthesis inhibitors[edit]

Organic mercurial compounds, such as methylmercury, have a high affinity for sulfhydryl groups, which causes dysfunction of the enzyme choline acetyltransferase. This inhibition may lead to acetylcholine deficiency, and can have consequences on motor function.

Release inhibitors[edit]

Botulin acts by suppressing the release of acetylcholine, whereas the venom from a black widow spider (alpha-latrotoxin) has the reverse effect. ACh inhibition causes paralysis. When bitten by a black widow spider, one experiences the wastage of ACh supplies and the muscles begin to contract. If and when the supply is depleted, paralysis occurs.

Comparative biology and evolution[edit]

Biochemical mechanisms[edit]

Acetylcholine is synthesized in certain neurons by the enzyme choline acetyltransferase from the compounds choline and acetyl-CoA. Cholinergic neurons are capable of producing ACh. An example of a central cholinergic area is the nucleus basalis of Meynert in the basal forebrain.[citation needed]

The enzyme acetylcholinesterase converts acetylcholine into the inactive metabolites choline and acetate. This enzyme is abundant in the synaptic cleft, and its role in rapidly clearing free acetylcholine from the synapse is essential for proper muscle function. Certain neurotoxins work by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase, thus leading to excess acetylcholine at the neuromuscular junction, causing paralysis of the muscles needed for breathing and stopping the beating of the heart.


Acetylcholine is a choline molecule that has been acetylated at the oxygen atom. Because of the presence of a highly polar, charged ammonium group, acetylcholine does not penetrate lipid membranes. Because of this, when the drug is introduced externally, it remains in the extracellular space and does not pass through the blood–brain barrier. A synonym of this drug is miochol.


Acetylcholine (ACh) was first identified in 1915 by Henry Hallett Dale for its actions on heart tissue. It was confirmed as a neurotransmitter by Otto Loewi, who initially gave it the name Vagusstoff because it was released from the vagus nerve. Both received the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work. Acetylcholine was also the first neurotransmitter to be identified.


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  3. ^ Francis PT, Palmer AM, Snape M, Wilcock GK (February 1999). "The cholinergic hypothesis of Alzheimer's disease: a review of progress". J. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatr. 66 (2): 137–47. doi:10.1136/jnnp.66.2.137. PMC 1736202. PMID 10071091. 
  4. ^ Platt, Bettina; Riedel, Gernot (2011). "The cholinergic system, EEG and sleep". Behavioural Brain Research 221 (2): 499–504. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2011.01.017. PMID 21238497. 
  5. ^ a b Woolf, NJ; Butcher, LL (1986). "Cholinergic systems in the rat brain: III. Projections from the pontomesencephalic tegmentum to the thalamus, tectum, basal ganglia, and basal forebrain". Brain Research Bulletin 16 (5): 603–37. doi:10.1016/0361-9230(86)90134-6. PMID 3742247. 
  6. ^ a b Woolf, NJ; Butcher, LL (1989). "Cholinergic systems in the rat brain: IV. Descending projections of the pontomesencephalic tegmentum". Brain Research Bulletin 23 (6): 519–40. doi:10.1016/0361-9230(89)90197-4. PMID 2611694. 
  7. ^ Goldberg, J. A.; Reynolds, J. N. J. (2011). "Spontaneous firing and evoked pauses in the tonically active cholinergic interneurons of the striatum". Neuroscience 198: 27–43. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2011.08.067. PMID 21925242. 
  8. ^ Morris, G.; Arkadir, D.; Nevet, A.; Vaadia, E.; Bergman, H. (2004). "Coincident but Distinct Messages of Midbrain Dopamine and Striatal Tonically Active Neurons". Neuron 43 (1): 133–143. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2004.06.012. PMID 15233923. 
  9. ^ Yu & Dayan 2005


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