Local anesthetic solutions were applied suddenly to the outside of single myelinated nerve fibers to measure the time course of development of block of sodium channels. Sodium currents were measured under voltage clamp with test pulses applied several times per second during the solution change. The rate of block was studied by using drugs of different lipid solubility and of different charge type, and the external pH was varied from pH 8.3 to pH 6 to change the degree of ionization of the amine compounds. At pH 8.3 the half-time of action of amine anesthetics such as lidocaine, procaine, tetracaine, and others was always less than 2 s and usually less than 1 s. Lowering the pH to 6.0 decreased the apparent potency and slowed the rate of action of these drugs. The rate of action of neutral benzocaine was fast (1 s) and pH independent. The rate of action of cationic quaternary QX-572 was slow (greater than 200 s) and also pH independent. Other quaternary anesthetic derivatives showed no action when applied outside. The result is that neutral drug forms act much more rapidly than charged ones, suggesting that externally applied local anesthetics must cross a hydrophobic barrier to reach their receptor. A model representing diffusion of drug into the nerve fiber gives reasonable time courses of action and reasonable membrane permeability coefficients on the assumption that the hydrophobic barrier is the nodal membrane. Arguments are given that there may be a need for reinterpretation of many published experiments on the location of the anesthetic receptor and on which charge form of the drug is active to take into account the effects of unstirred layers, high membrane permeability, and high lipid solubility.

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