Author ORCID Identifier

Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Christopher I. Richards


Upregulation of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) is a well-documented response to chronic nicotine exposure. Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are pentameric ligand-gated ion channels consisting of alpha (α2-10) and beta (β2-4) subunits. Nicotine, an agonist of nAChRs, alters trafficking and assembly of some subtypes of nAChRs, leading to an increase in expression of high sensitivity receptors on the plasma membrane. These physiological changes in nAChRs are believed to contribute to nicotine addiction, although the mechanism of these processes has not been resolved. Recently, many studies have converged on the idea that nicotine induces upregulation by an intracellular mechanism. In this dissertation, expression levels of nAChRs were quantified upon exposure to nicotine and its primary metabolite, cotinine. A pH sensitive variant of GFP, super ecliptic pHluorin (SEP), was integrated with a nAChR subunit to study expression and trafficking of nAChRs by differentiating intracellular and plasma membrane inserted receptors. In this work, cotinine is shown to increase the number of α4β2 nAChRs within a cell. Cotinine also affects trafficking of α4β2, evident by a redistribution of intracellular receptors and an increase in single vesicle insertion events on the plasma membrane. This work shows both nicotine and cotinine alter the overall assembly of α4β2 to favor the high sensitivity (α4)2(β2)3 version. Since cotinine and nicotine induce similar physiological changes in nAChRs, the metabolite potentially plays a role in the mechanism of nicotine addiction.

Although an intracellular mechanism for upregulation has been supported, a shift in assembly to the high sensitivity (α4)2(β2)3 version exclusively in the endoplasmic reticulum has not previously been detected. In order to study organelle specific changes in stoichiometry, a novel method was developed to isolate single nAChRs in nanovesicles derived from native cell membranes. Separation of nanovesicles originating from the endoplasmic reticulum and plasma membrane, encompassing isolated nAChRs, allows precise changes in stoichiometry to be monitored in subcellular regions. In this work, single molecule bleaching steps of green fluorescent protein (GFP) encoded in each alpha subunit of the pentamer are detected. The number of bleaching steps, or transitions to a nonfluorescent state upon continuous excitation, corresponds to the number of GFP-labeled alpha subunits present. Therefore, the stoichiometry can be deduced by detection of two bleaching steps, as in (α4)2(β2)3, or three bleaching steps, seen in (α4)3(β2)2. Using this method on isolated nAChRs, a shift to assembly of high sensitivity (α4)2(β2)3 receptors is detected definitively within the endoplasmic reticulum. In addition, an increase in (α4)2(β2)3 receptors located on the plasma membrane is shown when nicotine is present. This work provides convincing evidence that nicotine acts intracellularly, within the endoplasmic reticulum, to alter stoichiometry of nAChRs.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)