Human locus coeruleus neurons express the GABAA receptor γ2 subunit gene and produce benzodiazepine binding

Kati S. Hellsten, Saku T. Sinkkonen, Thomas M. Hyde, Joel E. Kleinman, Terttu Särkioja, Anu Maksimow, Mikko Uusi-Oukari, Esa R. Korpi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Noradrenergic neurons of the locus coeruleus project throughout the cerebral cortex and multiple subcortical structures. Alterations in the locus coeruleus firing are associated with vigilance states and with fear and anxiety disorders. Brain ionotropic type A receptors for γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) serve as targets for anxiolytic and sedative drugs, and play an essential regulatory role in the locus coeruleus. GABAA receptors are composed of a variable array of subunits forming heteropentameric chloride channels with different pharmacological properties. The γ2 subunit is essential for the formation of the binding site for benzodiazepines, allosteric modulators of GABAA receptors that are clinically often used as sedatives/hypnotics and anxiolytics. There are contradictory reports in regard to the γ2 subunit's expression and participation in the functional GABAA receptors in the mammalian locus coeruleus. We report here that the γ2 subunit is transcribed and participates in the assembly of functional GABAA receptors in the tyrosine hydroxylase-positive neuromelanin-containing neurons within postmortem human locus coeruleus as demonstrated by in situ hybridization with specific γ2 subunit oligonucleotides and autoradiographic assay for flumazenil-sensitive [3H]Ro 15-4513 binding to benzodiazepine sites. These sites were also sensitive to the α1 subunit-preferring agonist zolpidem. Our data suggest a species difference in the expression profiles of the α1 and γ2 subunits in the locus coeruleus, with the sedation-related benzodiazepine sites being more important in man than rodents. This may explain the repeated failures in the transition of novel drugs with a promising neuropharmacological profile in rodents to human clinical usage, due to intolerable sedative effects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-81
Number of pages5
JournalNeuroscience Letters
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Benzodiazepine binding
  • GABA receptor subunits
  • Locus coeruleus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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