We have studied the inactivation of high-voltage-activated (HVA), omega-conotoxin-sensitive, N-type Ca2+ current in embryonic chick dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons. Voltage steps from -80 to 0 mV produced inward Ca2+ currents that inactivated in a biphasic manner and were fit well with the sum of two exponentials (with time constants of approximately 100 ms and > 1 s). As reported previously, upon depolarization of the holding potential to -40 mV, N current amplitude was significantly reduced and the rapid phase of inactivation all but eliminated (Nowycky, M. C., A. P. Fox, and R. W. Tsien. 1985. Nature. 316:440-443; Fox, A. P., M. C. Nowycky, and R. W. Tsien. 1987a. Journal of Physiology. 394:149-172; Swandulla, D., and C. M. Armstrong. 1988. Journal of General Physiology. 92:197-218; Plummer, M. R., D. E. Logothetis, and P. Hess. 1989. Neuron. 2:1453-1463; Regan, L. J., D. W. Sah, and B. P. Bean. 1991. Neuron. 6:269-280; Cox, D. H., and K. Dunlap. 1992. Journal of Neuroscience. 12:906-914). Such kinetic properties might be explained by a model in which N channels inactivate by both fast and slow voltage-dependent processes. Alternatively, kinetic models of Ca-dependent inactivation suggest that the biphasic kinetics and holding-potential-dependence of N current inactivation could be due to a combination of Ca-dependent and slow voltage-dependent inactivation mechanisms. To distinguish between these possibilities we have performed several experiments to test for the presence of Ca-dependent inactivation. Three lines of evidence suggest that N channels inactivate in a Ca-dependent manner. (a) The total extent of inactivation increased 50%, and the ratio of rapid to slow inactivation increased approximately twofold when the concentration of the Ca2+ buffer, EGTA, in the patch pipette was reduced from 10 to 0.1 mM. (b) With low intracellular EGTA concentrations (0.1 mM), the ratio of rapid to slow inactivation was additionally increased when the extracellular Ca2+ concentration was raised from 0.5 to 5 mM. (c) Substituting Na+ for Ca2+ as the permeant ion eliminated the rapid phase of inactivation. Other results do not support the notion of current-dependent inactivation, however. Although high intracellular EGTA (10 mM) or BAPTA (5 mM) concentrations suppressed the rapid phase inactivation, they did not eliminate it. Increasing the extracellular Ca2+ from 0.5 to 5 mM had little effect on this residual fast inactivation, indicating that it is not appreciably sensitive to Ca2+ influx under these conditions.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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