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Molecular basis of positive allosteric modulation of GluN2B NMDA receptors by polyamines

Laetitia Mony, Shujia Zhu, Stéphanie Carvalho and Pierre Paoletti

NMDA receptors (NMDARs) form glutamate-gated ion channels that play central roles in neuronal communication and plasticity throughout the brain. Dysfunctions of NMDARs are involved in several CNS disorders, including stroke, chronic pain and schizophrenia. One hallmark of NMDARs is that their activity can be allosterically regulated by a variety of extracellular small ligands. While much has been learned recently regarding allosteric inhibition of NMDARs, the structural determinants underlying positive allosteric modulation of these receptors remain poorly defined. Here we show that polyamines, naturally occurring polycations that selectively enhance NMDARs containing the GluN2B subunit, bind at a dimer interface between GluN1 and GluN2B subunit N-terminal domains (NTDs). Polyamines act by shielding negative charges present on GluN1 and GluN2B NTD lower lobes, allowing their close apposition, an effect that in turn prevents NTD clamshell closure. Our work reveals the mechanistic basis for positive allosteric modulation of NMDARs. It provides the first example of an intersubunit binding site in this class of receptors, a discovery that holds promise for future drug interventions.

EMBO J. 2011 Jun 17;30(15):3134-46.