In the brain, muscarinic acetylcholine receptors (mAChRs) are involved in higher cognitive functions including synaptic plasticity and memory. In Alzheimer's disease (AD) patients the cholinergic nervous system is severely damaged. In order to reinforce the cholinergic system, clinical tests were started to use cholinomimetic drugs to treat AD patients. To identify the genes involved in mAChR signalling, we used a differential display approach and found 11 genes that were readily activated by mAChR with 1 hour of activation. These included the transcription factors Egr-1, Egr-2, Egr-3, c-Jun, Jun-D and Gos-3; the growth regulator hCyr61; the signalling factors NGFi-B (nerve growth factor induced gene-B) and Etr101; the unknown gene Gig-2 (for G-protein-coupled receptor induced gene 2); and the acetylcholinesterase gene (ACHE). Our data show that multiple immediate-early genes are under the control of mAChRs, and they suggest that these genes play important roles in coupling receptor stimulation to long-term neuronal responses. The results also suggest a feedback mechanism where up-regulated ACHE expression and accelerated breakdown of acetylcholine (ACh) at the cholinergic synapses limits increases in cholinergic transmission. Three hours after m1 mAChR activation a different pattern of gene expression was demonstrated. It included the novel genes Gig-3 and Gig-4, as well as the LIM-only protein LM04. Like ACHE, these genes are target genes which may be under the control of the above immediate-early genes. Together, our data show that muscarinic receptors induce a complex and sustained pattern of gene expression that may be involved in the regulation of cholinergic transmission as well as the control of cellular functions in post-synaptic cholinergic target cells. These results may contribute to a better understanding of the effects and side effects of cholinomimetic treatment in AD patients.

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