The tachykinin NK1 receptor is widely expressed in the mammalian central and peripheral nervous system. Powerful pharmacological tools (agonists and antagonists) are now available to elucidate the physiological role of NK1 receptors at these levels as well as to understand their role in diseases and establish the possible therapeutic usefulness of NK1 receptor antagonists for treatment of human diseases. The structure-activity studies that have led to the development of potent peptide and non-peptide ligands for the tachykinin NK1 receptor are here reviewed. Among the peptide agonists and antagonists, linear and cyclic sequences have been developed. The non peptide antagonists belong to different chemical classes i.e. steroids, perhydroisoindolones, quinuclidines piperidines and tryptophane derivatives. The first non peptide antagonists for NK1 receptors have been obtained by random screening of chemical compounds large collections. The resulting leads were optimized with 'classic' structure activity approaches, aiming at identifying 'common' motifs for interaction with the receptor by ligands of different chemical classes. The results derived from the recent application of molecular biology techniques were useful to drive the design of new ligands toward a precise structural definition of ligand-receptor bi- molecular interactions. Studies on mutant receptors have established that the sites of interaction of peptide agonists and non peptide antagonists with the tachykinin NK1 receptor are largely non overlapping. Moreover, data obtained from mutagenesis of the NK1 receptor further indicate that some amino acid residues in the NK1 receptor sequence are critical for determining the binding affinity of some but not all ligands. Therefore, different antagonists discovered from random screening may not possess common points of interaction or common structural and conformational characteristics for their interaction with the tachykinin NK1 receptor. The tachykinin NK1 receptor couples with G-proteins to determine its biological effects in target cells. Several G-proteins both sensitive (Go, Gi) and insensitive (Gq, G11) to pertussis toxin can mediate the action of NK1 receptors. Moreover, several second messanger signalling systems (elevation of intracellular calcium, stimulation of phosphoinositol turnover, arachidonic acid mobilization, cAMP accumulation) have to be activated following NK1 receptor signalling. Also a direct modulation of certain ion channels at membrane level has been proposed. The NK1 receptor undergoes prompt and significant tachyphylaxis upon exposure to the agonist: this has been shown to be linked with receptor internalization which also occurs physoogically when the NK1 receptor is stimulated by endogenous tachykinins.
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