Intracellular Cl- activity (aiCl) was measured with Cl(-)-sensitive microelectrodes in normal and denervated rat lumbrical muscle. In normal muscle bathed in normal Krebs solution, aiCl lay close to that predicted by the Nernst equation. The addition of 9-anthracene carboxylic acid, which blocks Cl- conductance, caused aiCl to increase far above that predicted by a passive distribution. Furosemide (10 microM) reversibly blocked this accumulation. After muscle denervation, aiCl progressively increased for 1-2 wk. The rise occurred in two stages. The initial stage (1-3 d after denervation) reflected passive Cl- accumulation owing to membrane depolarization. At later times, aiCl continued to increase, with no further change in membrane potential, which suggests an active uptake mechanism. This rise approximately coincided with the natural reduction in membrane conductance to Cl- that occurs several days after denervation. Na+ replacement, K+ replacement, and furosemide each reversibly blocked the active Cl- accumulation in denervated muscle. Quantitative estimates suggested that there was little difference between Cl- flux rates in normal and denervated muscles. The results can be explained by assuming that, in normal muscle, an active accumulation mechanism operates, but that Cl- lies close to equilibrium owing to the high membrane conductance to Cl-. The rise in aiCl after denervation can be accounted for by the membrane depolarization, the reduction in membrane Cl- conductance, and the nearly unaltered action of an inwardly directed Cl- "pump."

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