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Journal: Pharmacological reviews


Nuclear receptors are ligand-activated transcription factors and include the receptors for steroid hormones, lipophilic vitamins, sterols, and bile acids. These receptors serve as targets for development of myriad drugs that target a range of disorders. Classically defined ligands that bind to the ligand-binding domain of nuclear receptors, whether they are endogenous or synthetic, either activate receptor activity (agonists) or block activation (antagonists) and due to the ability to alter activity of the receptors are often termed receptor “modulators.” The complex pharmacology of nuclear receptors has provided a class of ligands distinct from these simple modulators where ligands display agonist/partial agonist/antagonist function in a tissue or gene selective manner. This class of ligands is defined as selective modulators. Here, we review the development and pharmacology of a range of selective nuclear receptor modulators.

Concepts: Pharmacology, Transcription factor, Protein, Cholesterol, Nuclear receptor, Receptor, Steroid, Signal transduction


Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) is a zinc-dependent peptidase responsible for converting angiotensin I into the vasoconstrictor angiotensin II. However, ACE is a relatively nonspecific peptidase that is capable of cleaving a wide range of substrates. Because of this, ACE and its peptide substrates and products affect many physiologic processes, including blood pressure control, hematopoiesis, reproduction, renal development, renal function, and the immune response. The defining feature of ACE is that it is composed of two homologous and independently catalytic domains, the result of an ancient gene duplication, and ACE-like genes are widely distributed in nature. The two ACE catalytic domains contribute to the wide substrate diversity of ACE and, by extension, the physiologic impact of the enzyme. Several studies suggest that the two catalytic domains have different biologic functions. Recently, the X-ray crystal structure of ACE has elucidated some of the structural differences between the two ACE domains. This is important now that ACE domain-specific inhibitors have been synthesized and characterized. Once widely available, these reagents will undoubtedly be powerful tools for probing the physiologic actions of each ACE domain. In turn, this knowledge should allow clinicians to envision new therapies for diseases not currently treated with ACE inhibitors.

Concepts: Blood pressure, Physiology, Angiotensin, Angiotensin-converting enzyme, Enzyme, Renin-angiotensin system, Evolution, DNA


Psychostimulants such as cocaine have been used as performance enhancers throughout recorded history. Although psychostimulants are commonly prescribed to improve attention and cognition, a great deal of literature has described their ability to induce cognitive deficits, as well as addiction. How can a single drug class be known to produce both cognitive enhancement and impairment? Properties of the particular stimulant drug itself and individual differences between users have both been suggested to dictate the outcome of stimulant use. A more parsimonious alternative, which we endorse, is that dose is the critical determining factor in cognitive effects of stimulant drugs. Herein, we review several popular stimulants (cocaine, amphetamine, methylphenidate, modafinil, and caffeine), outlining their history of use, mechanism of action, and use and abuse today. One common graphic depiction of the cognitive effects of psychostimulants is an inverted U-shaped dose-effect curve. Moderate arousal is beneficial to cognition, whereas too much activation leads to cognitive impairment. In parallel to this schematic, we propose a continuum of psychostimulant activation that covers the transition from one drug effect to another as stimulant intake is increased. Low doses of stimulants effect increased arousal, attention, and cognitive enhancement; moderate doses can lead to feelings of euphoria and power, as well as addiction and cognitive impairment; and very high doses lead to psychosis and circulatory collapse. This continuum helps account for the seemingly disparate effects of stimulant drugs, with the same drug being associated with cognitive enhancement and impairment.

Concepts: Coca, Narcolepsy, Nicotine, Stimulants, Recreational drug use, Methamphetamine, Stimulant, Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder


Psychedelics (serotonergic hallucinogens) are powerful psychoactive substances that alter perception and mood and affect numerous cognitive processes. They are generally considered physiologically safe and do not lead to dependence or addiction. Their origin predates written history, and they were employed by early cultures in many sociocultural and ritual contexts. After the virtually contemporaneous discovery of (5R,8R)-(+)-lysergic acid-N,N-diethylamide (LSD)-25 and the identification of serotonin in the brain, early research focused intensively on the possibility that LSD and other psychedelics had a serotonergic basis for their action. Today there is a consensus that psychedelics are agonists or partial agonists at brain serotonin 5-hydroxytryptamine 2A receptors, with particular importance on those expressed on apical dendrites of neocortical pyramidal cells in layer V. Several useful rodent models have been developed over the years to help unravel the neurochemical correlates of serotonin 5-hydroxytryptamine 2A receptor activation in the brain, and a variety of imaging techniques have been employed to identify key brain areas that are directly affected by psychedelics. Recent and exciting developments in the field have occurred in clinical research, where several double-blind placebo-controlled phase 2 studies of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy in patients with cancer-related psychosocial distress have demonstrated unprecedented positive relief of anxiety and depression. Two small pilot studies of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy also have shown positive benefit in treating both alcohol and nicotine addiction. Recently, blood oxygen level-dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging and magnetoencephalography have been employed for in vivo brain imaging in humans after administration of a psychedelic, and results indicate that intravenously administered psilocybin and LSD produce decreases in oscillatory power in areas of the brain’s default mode network.

Concepts: Cerebral cortex, Psychology, Neuron, Psychoactive drug, Psychedelic drug, Magnetic resonance imaging, Brain, Serotonin


This paper formulates the action of psychedelics by integrating the free-energy principle and entropic brain hypothesis. We call this formulation relaxed beliefs under psychedelics (REBUS) and the anarchic brain, founded on the principle that-via their entropic effect on spontaneous cortical activity-psychedelics work to relax the precision of high-level priors or beliefs, thereby liberating bottom-up information flow, particularly via intrinsic sources such as the limbic system. We assemble evidence for this model and show how it can explain a broad range of phenomena associated with the psychedelic experience. With regard to their potential therapeutic use, we propose that psychedelics work to relax the precision weighting of pathologically overweighted priors underpinning various expressions of mental illness. We propose that this process entails an increased sensitization of high-level priors to bottom-up signaling (stemming from intrinsic sources), and that this heightened sensitivity enables the potential revision and deweighting of overweighted priors. We end by discussing further implications of the model, such as that psychedelics can bring about the revision of other heavily weighted high-level priors, not directly related to mental health, such as those underlying partisan and/or overly-confident political, religious, and/or philosophical perspectives. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Psychedelics are capturing interest, with efforts underway to bring psilocybin therapy to marketing authorisation and legal access within a decade, spearheaded by the findings of a series of phase 2 trials. In this climate, a compelling unified model of how psychedelics alter brain function to alter consciousness would have appeal. Towards this end, we have sought to integrate a leading model of global brain function, hierarchical predictive coding, with an often-cited model of the acute action of psychedelics, the entropic brain hypothesis. The resulting synthesis states that psychedelics work to relax high-level priors, sensitising them to liberated bottom-up information flow, which, with the right intention, care provision and context, can help guide and cultivate the revision of entrenched pathological priors.


Comorbid depression and chronic pain are highly prevalent in individuals suffering from physical illness. Here, we critically examine the possibility that inflammation is the common mediator of this comorbidity, and we explore the implications of this hypothesis. Inflammation signals the brain to induce sickness responses that include increased pain and negative affect. This is a typical and adaptive response to acute inflammation. However, chronic inflammation induces a transition from these typical sickness behaviors into depression and chronic pain. Several mechanisms can account for the high comorbidity of pain and depression that stem from the precipitating inflammation in physically ill patients. These mechanisms include direct effects of cytokines on the neuronal environment or indirect effects via downregulation of G protein-coupled receptor kinase 2, activation of the tryptophan-degrading enzyme indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase that generates neurotropic kynurenine metabolites, increased brain extracellular glutamate, and the switch of GABAergic neurotransmission from inhibition to excitation. Despite the existence of many neuroimmune candidate mechanisms for the co-occurrence of depression and chronic pain, little work has been devoted so far to critically assess their mediating role in these comorbid symptoms. Understanding neuroimmune mechanisms that underlie depression and pain comorbidity may yield effective pharmaceutical targets that can treat both conditions simultaneously beyond traditional antidepressants and analgesics.

Concepts: Mediation, Pain, Comorbidity, Inflammation, Nervous system, Medicine, Signal transduction, Illness


The study of botulinum neurotoxins (BoNT) is rapidly progressing in many aspects. Novel BoNTs are being discovered owing to next generation sequencing, but their biologic and pharmacological properties remain largely unknown. The molecular structure of the large protein complexes that the toxin forms with accessory proteins, which are included in some BoNT type A1 and B1 pharmacological preparations, have been determined. By far the largest effort has been dedicated to the testing and validation of BoNTs as therapeutic agents in an ever increasing number of applications, including pain therapy. BoNT type A1 has been also exploited in a variety of cosmetic treatments, alone or in combination with other agents, and this specific market has reached the size of the one dedicated to the treatment of medical syndromes. The pharmacological properties and mode of action of BoNTs have shed light on general principles of neuronal transport and protein-protein interactions and are stimulating basic science studies. Moreover, the wide array of BoNTs discovered and to be discovered and the production of recombinant BoNTs endowed with specific properties suggest novel uses in therapeutics with increasing disease/symptom specifity. These recent developments are reviewed here to provide an updated picture of the biologic mechanism of action of BoNTs, of their increasing use in pharmacology and in cosmetics, and of their toxicology.

Concepts: Therapeutic effect, Toxin, The Canon of Medicine, Pharmacotherapy, Therapy, Microbial toxins, Medicine, Protein


Urotensin II (UII) is a cyclic neuropeptide that was first isolated from the urophysis of teleost fish on the basis of its ability to contract the hindgut. Subsequently, UII was characterized in tetrapods including humans. Phylogenetic studies and synteny analysis indicate that UII and its paralogous peptide urotensin II-related peptide (URP) belong to the somatostatin/cortistatin superfamily. In mammals, the UII and URP genes are primarily expressed in cholinergic neurons of the brainstem and spinal cord. UII and URP mRNAs are also present in various organs notably in the cardiovascular, renal, and endocrine systems. UII and URP activate a common G protein-coupled receptor, called UT, that exhibits relatively high sequence identity with somatostatin, opioid, and galanin receptors. The UT gene is widely expressed in the central nervous system (CNS) and in peripheral tissues including the retina, heart, vascular bed, lung, kidney, adrenal medulla, and skeletal muscle. Structure-activity relationship studies and NMR conformational analysis have led to the rational design of a number of peptidic and nonpeptidic UT agonists and antagonists. Consistent with the wide distribution of UT, UII has now been shown to exert a large array of biologic activities, in particular in the CNS, the cardiovascular system, and the kidney. Here, we review the current knowledge concerning the pleiotropic actions of UII and discusses the possible use of antagonists for future therapeutic applications.

Concepts: Brain, Fish, Organ, Kidney, Endocrine system, Central nervous system, Nervous system, Heart


In 2005, the International Union of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology Committee on Receptor Nomenclature and Drug Classification (NC-IUPHAR) published a catalog of all of the human gene sequences known or predicted to encode G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), excluding sensory receptors. This review updates the list of orphan GPCRs and describes the criteria used by NC-IUPHAR to recommend the pairing of an orphan receptor with its cognate ligand(s). The following recommendations are made for new receptor names based on 11 pairings for class A GPCRs: hydroxycarboxylic acid receptors [HCA1 (GPR81) with lactate, HCA2 (GPR109A) with 3-hydroxybutyric acid, HCA3 (GPR109B) with 3-hydroxyoctanoic acid]; lysophosphatidic acid receptors [LPA4 (GPR23), LPA5 (GPR92), LPA6 (P2Y5)]; free fatty acid receptors [FFA4 (GPR120) with omega-3 fatty acids]; chemerin receptor (CMKLR1; ChemR23) with chemerin; CXCR7 (CMKOR1) with chemokines CXCL12 (SDF-1) and CXCL11 (ITAC); succinate receptor (SUCNR1) with succinate; and oxoglutarate receptor [OXGR1 with 2-oxoglutarate]. Pairings are highlighted for an additional 30 receptors in class A where further input is needed from the scientific community to validate these findings. Fifty-seven human class A receptors (excluding pseudogenes) are still considered orphans; information has been provided where there is a significant phenotype in genetically modified animals. In class B, six pairings have been reported by a single publication, with 28 (excluding pseudogenes) still classified as orphans. Seven orphan receptors remain in class C, with one pairing described by a single paper. The objective is to stimulate research into confirming pairings of orphan receptors where there is currently limited information and to identify cognate ligands for the remaining GPCRs. Further information can be found on the IUPHAR Database website (

Concepts: Lipid, Metabotropic glutamate receptor, Triglyceride, Orphan receptor, Omega-3 fatty acid, Signal transduction, G protein-coupled receptor, Fatty acid


±3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) is a synthetic, psychoactive drug that is primarily used recreationally but also may have some therapeutic value. At low doses, MDMA produces feelings of relaxation, empathy, emotional closeness, and euphoria. Higher doses can produce unpleasant psychostimulant- and hallucinogen-like adverse effects and therefore are usually not taken intentionally. There is considerable evidence that MDMA produces neurotoxicity and cognitive deficits at high doses; however, these findings may not generalize to typical recreational or therapeutic use of low-dose MDMA. Here, we systematically review 25 years of research on the cognitive effects of MDMA in animals, with a critical focus on dose. We found no evidence that doses of less than 3 mg/kg MDMA-the dose range that users typically take-produce cognitive deficits in animals. Doses of 3 mg/kg or greater, which were administered most often and frequently ranged from 5 to 20 times greater than an average dose, also did not produce cognitive deficits in a slight majority of experiments. Overall, the preclinical evidence of MDMA-induced cognitive deficits is weak and, if anything, may be the result of unrealistically high dosing. While factors associated with recreational use such as polydrug use, adulterants, hyperthermia, and hyponatremia can increase the potential for neurotoxicity, the short-term, infrequent, therapeutic use of ultra low-dose MDMA is unlikely to pose significant cognitive risks. Future studies must examine any adverse cognitive effects of MDMA using clinically relevant doses to reliably assess its potential as a psychotherapeutic.