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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 Jul 25;103(30):11376-80. Epub 2006 Jul 17.

Acid-sensitive ionic channels in midbrain dopamine neurons are sensitive to ammonium, which may contribute to hyperammonemia damage.

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  • 1Department of Neuroscience, Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX 77030, USA.


Acid-sensitive ion channels (ASICs) are proton-gated and belong to the family of degenerin channels. In the mammalian nervous system, ASICs are most well known in sensory neurons, where they are involved in nociception, occurring when injury or inflammation causes acidification. ASICs also are widely expressed in the CNS, and some synaptic roles have been revealed. Because neuronal activity can produce pH changes, ASICs may respond to local acidic transients and alter the excitability of neuronal circuits more widely than is presently appreciated. Furthermore, ASICs have been found to underlie calcium transients that contribute to neuronal death. Degeneration of midbrain dopamine neurons is characteristic of advanced idiopathic Parkinson's disease. Therefore, we tested for functional ASICs in midbrain dopamine neurons of the ventral tegmental area and substantia nigra compacta. Patch-clamp electrophysiology applied to murine midbrain slices revealed abundant acid-sensitive channels. The ASICs were gated and desensitized by extracellular application of millimolar concentrations of NH(4)Cl. Although the NH(4)Cl solution contains micromolar concentrations of NH(3) at pH 7.4, our evidence indicates that NH(4)(+) gates the ASICs. The proton-gated and the ammonium-gated currents were inhibited by tarantula venom (psalmotoxin), which is specific for the ASIC1a subtype. The results show that acid-sensitive channels are expressed in midbrain dopamine neurons and suggest that ammonium sensitivity is a widely distributed ASIC characteristic in the CNS, including the hippocampus. The ammonium sensitivity suggests a role for ASIC1s in hepatic encephalopathy, cirrhosis, and other neuronal disorders that are associated with hyperammonemia.

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