T and B cells, macrophages and dendritic cells (DCs) all express most of the components necessary for a functional cholinergic system. This includes choline acetyltransferase (ChAT), muscarinic and nicotinic acetylcholine (ACh) receptors (mAChRs and nAChRs, respectively) and acetylcholinesterase (AChE). Immunological activation of T cells up-regulates cholinergic activity, including ChAT and AChE expression. Moreover, toll-like receptor agonists induce ChAT expression in DCs and macrophages, suggesting cholinergic involvement in the regulation of immune function. Immune cells express all five M1–M5 mAChR subtypes and several nAChR subtypes, including α7. Modulation of antigen-specific antibody and pro-inflammatory cytokine production in M1/M5 mAChR gene-knockout (KO) and α7 nAChR-KO mice further support the idea of a non-neuronal cholinergic system contributing to the regulation of immune function. Evidence also suggests that α7 nAChRs are involved in suppressing DC and macrophage activity, leading to suppression of T cell differentiation into effector T cells. These findings suggest the possibility that immune function could be modulated by manipulating immune cell cholinergic activity using specific agonists and antagonists. Therefore, a fuller understanding of the immune cell cholinergic system should be useful for the development of drugs and therapeutic strategies for the treatment of inflammation-related diseases and cancers.
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