Difference between Alpha and Beta Receptors

By: | Updated: May-28, 2019

Adrenergic receptors, which are responsible for the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism, exist in two types: alpha and beta receptors. While both are critical in responding to stressful situations, there are major differences in how they affect the body.

Summary Table

Alpha ReceptorBeta Receptor
Located at the postsynaptic membrane of the arteries, effector tissues, and vascular smooth musclesLocated at the postsynaptic membrane of involuntary muscles such as uterine, bronchi, and cardiac muscles
Sub-divided into alpha 1 (α1) and alpha 2 (α2) receptorsSub-divided into beta 1 (β1), beta 2 (β2), and beta 3 (β3) receptors

Actions:

α1: promotes smooth muscle contraction, vasoconstriction, and sweat secretion

α2: increases the blood’s clotting tendency, decreases the release of insulin, and decreases vascular resistance in the peripheries.

Actions:

β1: increases contractility, cardiac output, renin secretion, and heart rate

β2: promotes arterial dilation, smooth muscle relaxation, skeletal muscle anabolism, and insulin secretion

β3: stimulates lipolysis in adipose tissues

During the fight-or-flight mechanism, alpha receptors facilitate arterial constriction that leads to an increase in blood pressure and blood flow to the heartDuring the fight-or-flight mechanism, beta receptors increase cardiac strength, cardiac contractility, and blood vessel dilation in the bronchioles and the skeletal muscles

Definitions

An alpha receptor (alpha-adrenergic receptor) is a type of adrenergic receptor that triggers physiological responses such as smooth muscle contraction, vasoconstriction, pupil dilation, and intestinal muscle relaxation.

Meanwhile, a beta receptor (beta-adrenergic receptor) is any group of adrenergic receptors found on the cell surface of tissues and effector organs. It is responsible for vasodilation, bronchial muscle relaxation, and an increase in cardiac rate.

Alpha vs Beta Receptors

Both play an essential role in regulating the fight-or-flight syndrome, but they do so in opposing ways. Below is a detailed guide on the main difference between alpha and beta receptors.

Site

Alpha and beta receptors are situated at the postsynaptic membrane of the sympathetic neuroeffector junctions of different organs. Specifically, alpha receptors are found in arteries, effector tissues, and vascular smooth muscles, while beta receptors are mainly located in involuntary muscles such as uterine, bronchi, and cardiac muscles.

Types and Functions

Alpha receptors are further sub-divided into two types: alpha 1 (α1) and alpha 2 (α2). α1 receptors are largely involved in smooth muscle contraction in areas such as the uterus, the ureter, the bronchioles, and the blood vessels of the ciliary body. These receptors also cause vasoconstriction and sweat secretion, along with other important biological functions. Some of the actions of α2 receptors, on the other hand, include, but are not limited to, increasing the blood’s clotting tendency, decreasing the release of insulin, and decreasing vascular resistance in the peripheries.

Beta receptors, which are grouped as beta 1 (β1), beta 2 (β2), and beta 3 (β3) receptors, are also responsible for stimulating different physiological functions. β1 receptors mainly increase contractility, cardiac output, renin secretion, and heart rate, while β2 receptors promote arterial dilation, smooth muscle relaxation, skeletal muscle anabolism, and insulin secretion. Among the three, β3 has the simplest action. It facilitates lipolysis – or the breakdown of fats – in adipose tissues.

Fight or Flight Response

Alpha and beta receptors are sensitive to epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are some of the most important neurotransmitters in the body. During stressful or life-threatening situations, these neurotransmitters stimulate alpha receptors, which facilitate arterial constriction, consequently leading to an increase in both blood pressure and blood flow to the heart. In response, β1 receptors increase cardiac strength and contractility to further stimulate blood supply to different parts of the body.

As the alpha and β1 receptors increase blood supply, other beta receptors, specifically β2 receptors, facilitate blood vessel dilation in the skeletal muscles, making these muscles open for receiving a higher supply of blood from other parts of the body. β2 receptors also dilate the pulmonary bronchioles to allow better air passage.

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