Many cells possess these receptors, and the binding of a catecholamine to the receptor will generally stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, which includes widening the pupils of the eye, mobilizing energy, and diverting blood flow from non-essential organs to skeletal muscle.
Raymond Ahlquist, Professor of Pharmacology at Medical College of Georgia, published a paper concerning adrenergic nervous transmission in 1948 but its significance was largely ignored at that time. However, in 1954 he was able to incorporate his findings in a textbook, Drill's Pharmacology in Medicine, and thereby firmly establish the essential role played by α and β receptor sites in the adrenaline/nor-adrenaline cellular mechanism. His discovery would revolutionise advances in pharmacotherapeutic research, allowing the selective design of specific molecules to target medical ailments rather than rely upon traditional research into the efficacy of pre-existing herbal medicines.
There are two main groups of adrenergic receptors, α and β, with several subtypes.
β receptors have the subtypes β1, β2 and β3. All three are linked to Gs proteins (although β2 also couples to Gi), which in turn are linked to adenylate cyclase. Agonist binding thus causes a rise in the intracellular concentration of the second messenger cAMP. Downstream effectors of cAMP include cAMP-dependent protein kinase (PKA), which mediates some of the intracellular events following hormone binding. Isoprenaline is a non-selective agonist.
The mechanism of adrenergic receptors. Adrenaline or noradrenaline are receptor ligands to either α1, α2 or β-adrenergic receptors. α1 couples to Gq, which results in increased intracellular Ca2+ and subsequent smooth muscle contraction. α2, on the other hand, couples to Gi, which causes a decrease in neurotransmitter release, as well as a decrease of cAMP activity and a resulting and smooth muscle contraction. β receptors couple to Gs, and increases intracellular cAMP activity, resulting in e.g. heart muscle contraction, smooth muscle relaxation and glycogenolysis.
Roles in circulation
Epinephrine (adrenaline) reacts with both α- and β-adrenoreceptors, causing vasoconstriction and vasodilation, respectively. Although α receptors are less sensitive to epinephrine, when activated, they override the vasodilation mediated by β-adrenoreceptors because there are more peripheral α1 receptors than β-adrenoreceptors. The result is that high levels of circulating epinephrine cause vasoconstriction. At lower levels of circulating epinephrine, β-adrenoreceptor stimulation dominates, producing vasodilation followed by decrease of peripheral vascular resistance.
Smooth muscle behavior is variable depending on anatomical location. Smooth muscle contraction/relaxation is generalized below. One important note is the differential effects of increased cAMP in smooth muscle compared to cardiac muscle. Increased cAMP will promote relaxation in smooth muscle, while promoting increased contractility and pulse rate in cardiac muscle.
†There is no α1C receptor. At one time, there was a subtype known as C, but was found to be identical to one of the previously discovered subtypes. To avoid confusion, naming was continued with the letter D.
α receptors have several functions in common, but also individual effects. Common (or still unspecified) effects include:
α1-adrenergic receptors are members of the Gq protein-coupled receptor superfamily. Upon activation, a heterotrimeric G protein, Gq, activates phospholipase C (PLC). The PLC cleaves phosphatidylinositol 4,5-bisphosphate (PIP2), which in turn causes an increase in inositol triphosphate (IP3) and diacylglycerol (DAG). The former interacts with calcium channels of endoplasmic and sarcoplasmic reticulum, thus changing the calcium content in a cell. This triggers all other effects.
The α2 receptor couples to the Gi/o protein. It is a presynaptic receptor, causing negative feedback on, for example, norepinephrine. When NA is released into the synapse, it feeds back on the α2 receptor, causing less NA release from the presynaptic neuron. This decreases the effect of NA. There are also α2 receptors on the nerve terminal membrane of the post-synaptic adrenergic neuron.
There are 3 highly homologous subtypes of α2 receptors: α2A, α2Β, and α2C.
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Rang HP, Dale MM, Ritter JM, Moore PK (2003). "Chapter 11: Noradrenergic transmission". Pharmacology (5th ed.). Elsevier Churchill Livingstone. ISBN0-443-07145-4.
Rang HP, Dale MM, Ritter JM, Flower RJ (2007). "Chapter 11: Noradrenergic transmission". Rang and Dale's Pharmacology (6th ed.). Elsevier Churchill Livingstone. pp. 169–170. ISBN0-443-06911-5.