Quaternary ammonium (QA) blockers are well-known structural probes for studying the permeation pathway of voltage-gated K+ channels. In this study we have examined the effects of a series of n-alkyl-trimethylammonium compounds (Cn-QA) on batrachotoxin (BTX)-activated Na+ channels from skeletal muscle incorporated into planar lipid bilayers. We found that these amphipathic QA compounds (Cn-QA where n = 10-18) block single Na+ channels preferentially from the internal side with equilibrium dissociation constants (KD) in the submicromolar to micromolar range. External application of amphipathic QA compounds is far less effective, by a factor of greater than 200. The block can be described by a QA molecule binding to a single site in the Na+ channel permeation pathway. QA binding affinity is dependent on transmembrane voltage with an effective valence (delta) of approximately 0.5. QA dwell times (given as mean closed times, tau c) increase as a function of n-alkyl chain length, ranging from approximately 13 ms for C10-QA to 500 ms for C18-QA at +50 mV. The results imply that there is a large hydrophobic region within the Na+ channel pore which accepts up to 18 methylene groups of the Cn-QA cation. This hydrophobic domain may be of clinical significance since it also interacts with local anesthetics such as cocaine and mepivacaine. Finally, like BTX-activated Na+ channels in bilayers, unmodified Na+ channels in GH3 cells are also susceptible to QA block. Amphipathic QA cations elicit both tonic and use-dependent inhibitions of normal Na+ currents in a manner similar to that of local anesthetic cocaine. We conclude that amphipathic QA compounds are valuable structural probes to study the permeation pathway of both normal and BTX-activated Na+ channels.

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