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date: 04 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) is a sensor of cellular energy status that monitors the levels of AMP and ADP relative to ATP. If increases in AMP:ATP and/or ADP:ATP ratios are detected (indicating a reduction in cellular energy status), AMPK is activated by the canonical mechanism involving both allosteric activation and enhanced net phosphorylation at Thr172 on the catalytic subunit. Once activated, AMPK phosphorylates dozens of downstream targets, thus switching on catabolic pathways that generate ATP and switching off anabolic pathways and other energy-consuming processes. AMPK can also be activated by non-canonical mechanisms, triggered either by glucose starvation by a mechanism independent of changes in adenine nucleotides, or by increases in intracellular Ca2+ in response to hormones, mediated by the alternate upstream kinase CaMKK2.

AMPK is expressed in almost all eukaryotic cells, including neurons, as heterotrimeric complexes comprising a catalytic α subunit and regulatory β and γ subunits. The α subunits contain the kinase domain and regulatory regions that interact with the other two subunits. The β subunits contain a domain that, with the small lobe of the kinase domain on the α subunit, forms the “ADaM” site that binds synthetic drugs that are potent allosteric activators of AMPK, while the γ subunits contain the binding sites for the classical regulatory nucleotides, AMP, ADP, and ATP.

Although much undoubtedly remains to be discovered about the roles of AMPK in the nervous system, emerging evidence has confirmed the proposal that, in addition to its universal functions in regulating energy balance at the cellular level, AMPK also has cell- and circuit-specific roles at the whole-body level, particularly in energy homeostasis. These roles are mediated by phosphorylation of neural-specific targets such as ion channels, distinct from the targets by which AMPK regulates general, cell-autonomous energy balance. Examples of these cell- and circuit-specific functions discussed in this review include roles in the hypothalamus in balancing energy intake (feeding) and energy expenditure (thermogenesis), and its role in the brainstem, where it supports the hypoxic ventilatory response (breathing), increasing the supply of oxygen to the tissues during systemic hypoxia.

Keywords: AMPK, appetite, breathing, energy expenditure, oxygen sensing

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