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Desensitization is an important mechanism curtailing the activity of ligand-gated ion channels (LGICs). Although the structural basis of desensitization is not fully resolved, it is thought to be governed by physicochemical properties of bound ligands. Here, we show the importance of an allosteric cation-binding pocket in controlling transitions between activated and desensitized states of rat kainate-type (KAR) ionotropic glutamate receptors (iGluRs). Tethering a positive charge to this pocket sustains KAR activation, preventing desensitization, whereas mutations that disrupt cation binding eliminate channel gating. These different outcomes explain the structural distinction between deactivation and desensitization. Deactivation occurs when the ligand unbinds before the cation, whereas desensitization proceeds if a ligand is bound without cation pocket occupancy. This sequence of events is absent from AMPA-type iGluRs; thus, cations are identified as gatekeepers of KAR gating, a role unique among even closely related LGICs. © 2013 Nature America, Inc. All rights reserved.

Original publication




Journal article


Nature Structural and Molecular Biology

Publication Date





1054 - 1061