Toxins are of interest in drug design because the toxins provide three-dimensional templates for creating small molecular mimics with interesting pharmacological properties. Toxins are also useful in drug discovery because they can be used as pharmacological tools to uncover potential therapeutic targets. With their high potency and selectivity, toxins are often more useful in functional experiments than standard pharmacological agents. We have used two groups of neurotoxins, the dendrotoxins and the muscarinic toxins (MTs), to explore the involvement of subtypes of potassium ion channels and muscarinic receptors, respectively, in processes involved in cognition and the changes in neuronal properties with aging. From our current work, quantitative autoradiographic studies with radiolabelled dendrotoxins reveal widespread distribution of binding sites throughout rat brain sections, but few differences exist between young adult and aged rats. However, displacement studies with toxin K, which preferentially binds to the Kv1.1 subtype of cloned potassium channel, show the selective loss of such sites in regions of the hippocampus and septohippocampal pathway with aging. MTs have been tested for effects on performance of rats in memory paradigms. MT2, which activates m1 receptors, improves performance of rats in a step-down inhibitory avoidance test, whereas MT3, which blocks m4 receptors, decreases performance when given into the hippocampus. This is the first clear demonstration of a role for m4 muscarinic receptors in cognition.
- drug design
- toxin analysis