Receptors are nature's transducers—they detect circulating hormones or substances released by nerve activity and elicit a biological response. Our research centers on specialized types of receptors called synaptic receptors, found on the surfaces of cells in close proximity to nerve terminals. Receptors bind nerve-released substances and open a tiny pore in the cell membrane through which ions flow to create an electrical impulse.
Acetylcholine receptors at a motor synapse appear as tiny rosettes.
If the receptor is located on a muscle cell, the impulse triggers contraction. Whereas if it is on a nerve cell, it causes release of transmitter substance on yet another cell. In this way, excitable cells communicate throughout the body by means of specialized pairs of neurotransmitter substances and receptors. Our research aims to clarify the atomic-scale workings of synaptic receptors, not only because they are critical for cell-cell communication, but also because their structures are altered in neurological diseases and they are targets for therapeutic drugs.