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Neurotransmitter receptors are key elements for brain function, but work so far has been focusing on the individual receptor subunits. It is, however, the receptor complexes that execute work rather than the subunits; of course, the multitude of possible combinations of the many receptors forming homomeric or heteromeric complexes is hampering studies. Moreover, not only receptors are observed in the complexes but also their corresponding protein kinases, phosphatases, and anchoring proteins, to name a few. Studying receptor complexes is still an analytical challenge. Thus far, no methods exist to unequivocally characterize or even quantify these assemblies. Major problems and limitations for the analysis exist, such as solubility, as the use of detergents is critical and may dissociate the receptor complexes as well as their separation in the native state. Gel-based techniques are able to separate and semiquantitatively quantify receptor complexes by subsequent immunochemical methods but do not allow the characterization of complex components. Immunoprecipitation methods are highly dependent on antibody availability and specificity, and the result of coimmunoprecipitation does not verify the direct physical interaction of proteins in the immunoprecipitate. Antibody shift assays are suitable to identify individual known proteins within a complex as are immunogold electron microscopic techniques and energy transfer technologies. Most techniques are simply showing the proximity of proteins rather than their physical interaction. Although fluorescence correlation spectroscopy is a promising technique, the use for quantification or comparing biological samples is limited. A lot of work remains to be done to provide tools for the characterization and quantification of receptor complexes in the brain.


Ephrem Engidawork, Jana Aradska, Gert Lubec. Neurotransmitter receptor complexes: methods for bioanalysis, their potentials and limitations. Reviews in the neurosciences. 2016 Feb;27(2):111-33

PMID: 26488605

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