Friday, April 07, 2006

Trace amine receptors

This interesting paper is about cellular receptors for trace amines.  (Amines are simply chemicals that contain one or more atoms of nitrogen—the human body uses a variety of them for transmitting signals. ) Some, like histamine, are used all over the place in large quantities, and so it was easy to figure out what they did.

Others are consistently present at very low levels.  The low levels of the amines and their receptors have made it hard to figure out what is going on.  Research has shown that trace amines appear to function as transmitters, and that they are often disturbed in certain disease states, such as migraine and schizophrenia.  Unfortunately for many years the understanding stalled at that point:  intriguing but mysterious.

As the linked review paper shows, the answers are finally starting to arrive.  A family of receptors has been discovered that are highly-specific to trace amines, in particular tyramine, β-phenylethylamine, octopamine, and dopamine.  They are present in many species of mammals, and are localized to intriguing brain regions like the amygdala (which influences emotional responses).  It will be interesting to see if any answers to the migraine puzzle turn up in this new molecular territory.

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