We have determined the time course of Na channel inactivation in clonal pituitary (GH3) cells by comparing records before and after the enzymatic removal of inactivation. The cells were subjected to whole-cell patch clamp, with papain included in the internal medium. Inactivation was slowly removed over the course of 10 min, making it possible to obtain control records before the enzyme acted. Papain caused a large (4-100x) increase in current magnitude for small depolarizations (near -40 mV), and a much smaller increase for large ones (approximately 1.5x at +40 mV). For technical reasons it was sometimes convenient to study outward INa recorded with no Na+ outside. The instantaneous I-V (IIV) curve in this condition was nonlinear before papain, and more nearly linear afterwards. The gNa-V curve after papain, obtained by dividing the INa-V curve by the IIV curve, was left-shifted by at least 20 mV and steepened. A spontaneous 5-10 mV left shift occurred in the absence of papain. The rate of the inactivation step was found to vary only slightly from -100 mV to +60 mV, based on the following evidence. (a) Before papain, inactivation rate saturated with voltage and was constant from +20 to +60 mV. (b) We activated the channels with a brief pulse, and studied the time course of the current on changing the voltage to a second, usually more negative level (Na+ present internally and externally). The time course of inactivation at each voltage was obtained by comparing control traces with those after inactivation was removed. When the 5-10-mV spontaneous shift was taken into account, inactivation rate changed by less than 10% from -100 to +60 mV. The data are considered in terms of existing models of the Na channel.

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