Intracellular microelectrodes, fluorescence imaging, and radiotracer flux techniques were used to investigate the physiological response of the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) to the major retinal inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is released tonically in the dark by amphibian horizontal cells, but is not taken up by the nearby Müller cells. Addition of GABA to the apical bath produced voltage responses in the bullfrog RPE that were not blocked nor mimicked by any of the major GABA-receptor antagonists or agonists. Nipecotic acid, a substrate for GABA transport, inhibited the voltage effects of GABA. GABA and nipecotic acid also inhibited the voltage effects of taurine, suggesting that the previously characterized beta-alanine sensitive taurine carrier also takes up GABA. The voltage responses of GABA, taurine, nipecotic acid, and beta-alanine all showed first-order saturable kinetics with the following Km's: GABA (Km = 160 microM), beta-alanine (Km = 250 microM), nipecotic acid (Km = 420 microM), and taurine (Km = 850 microM). This low affinity GABA transporter is dependent on external Na, partially dependent on external Cl, and is stimulated in low [K]o, which approximates subretinal space [K]o during light onset. Apical GABA also produced a significant conductance increase at the basolateral membrane. These GABA-induced conductance changes were blocked by basal Ba2+, suggesting that GABA decreased basolateral membrane K conductance. In addition, the apical membrane Na/K ATPase was stimulated in the presence of GABA. A model for the interaction between the GABA transporter, the Na/K ATPase, and the basolateral membrane K conductance accounts for the electrical effects of GABA. Net apical-to-basal flux of [3H]-GABA was also observed in radioactive flux experiments. The present study shows that a high capacity GABA uptake mechanism with unique pharmacological properties is located at the RPE apical membrane and could play an important role in the removal of GABA from the subretinal space (SRS). This transporter could also coordinate the activities of GABA and taurine in the SRS after transitions between light and dark.

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