Calcium ions, applied internally, externally, or symmetrically, have been used in conjunction with rate-theory modeling to explore the energy profile of the ion-conducting pore of sodium channels. The block, by extracellular and/or intracellular calcium, of sodium ion conduction through single, batrachotoxin-activated sodium channels from rat brain was studied in planar lipid bilayers. Extracellular calcium caused a reduction of inward current that was enhanced by hyperpolarization and a weaker block of outward current. Intracellular calcium reduced both outward and inward sodium current, with the block being weakly dependent on voltage and enhanced by depolarization. These results, together with the dependence of single-channel conductance on sodium concentration, and the effects of symmetrically applied calcium, were described using single- or double-occupancy, three-barrier, two-site (3B2S), or single-occupancy, 4B3S rate-theory models. There appear to be distinct outer and inner regions of the channel, easily accessed by external or internal calcium respectively, separated by a rate-limiting barrier to calcium permeation. Most of the data could be well fit by each of the models. Reducing the ion interaction energies sufficiently to allow a small but significant probability of two-ion occupancy in the 3B2S model yielded better overall fits than for either 3B2S or 4B3S models constrained to single occupancy. The outer ion-binding site of the model may represent a section of the pore in which sodium, calcium, and guanidinium toxins, such as saxitoxin or tetrodotoxin, compete. Under physiological conditions, with millimolar calcium externally, and high potassium internally, the model channels are occupied by calcium or potassium much of the time, causing a significant reduction in single-channel conductance from the value measured with sodium as the only cation species present. Sodium conductance and degree of block by external calcium are reduced by modification of single channels with the carboxyl reagent, trimethyloxonium (TMO) (Worley et al., 1986) Journal of General Physiology. 87:327-349). Elevations of only the outermost parts of the energy profiles for sodium and calcium were sufficient to account for the reductions in conductance and in efficacy of calcium block produced by TMO modification.

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