Ethanol sensitivity of NMDA receptors
NMDA receptors are ionotropic glutamate receptors assembled of subunits of the NR1 and of the NR2 family (NR2A–NR2D). The subunit diversity largely affects the pharmacological properties of NMDA receptors and, hence, gives rise to receptor heterogeneity. As an overall result of studies on recombinant and native NMDA receptors, ethanol inhibits the function of receptors containing the subunits NR2A and/or NR2B to a greater extent than those containing NR2C or NR2D. For example, in rat cultured mesencephalic neurons, NR2C expression was developmentally increased, whereas expression of NR2A and NR2B was decreased. These changes coincided with a developmental loss of sensitivity of NMDA responses to ethanol and ifenprodil, a non-competitive NMDA receptor antagonist that shows selectivity for NR2B-containing receptors. Also in rat locus coeruleus neurons, the low ethanol sensitivity of somatic NMDA receptors could be explained by a prominent expression of NR2C. The inhibitory site of action for ethanol on the NMDA receptor is not yet known. Patch–clamp studies suggest a target site exposed to or only accessible from the extracellular environment. Apparently, amino acid residue Phe639, located in the TM3 domain of NR1, plays a crucial role in the inhibition of NMDA receptor function by ethanol. Since this phenylalanine site is common to all NMDA and non-NMDA receptor (AMPA/kainate receptor) subunits, this observation is consistent with accumulating evidence for a similar ethanol sensitivity of a variety of NMDA and non-NMDA receptors, but it cannot explain the differences in ethanol sensitivity observed with different NR2 subunits.