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J Neurosci. 2003 May 1;23(9):3588-96.

Functional hemichannels in astrocytes: a novel mechanism of glutamate release.

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Department of Neurology, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, Washington 98195-6465, USA.


Little is known about the expression and possible functions of unopposed gap junction hemichannels in the brain. Emerging evidence suggests that gap junction hemichannels can act as stand-alone functional channels in astrocytes. With immunocytochemistry, dye uptake, and HPLC measurements, we show that astrocytes in vitro express functional hemichannels that can mediate robust efflux of glutamate and aspartate. Functional hemichannels were confirmed by passage of extracellular lucifer yellow (LY) into astrocytes in nominal divalent cation-free solution (DCFS) and the ability to block this passage with gap junction blocking agents. Glutamate/aspartate release (or LY loading) in DCFS was blocked by multivalent cations (Ca2+, Ba2+, Sr2+, Mg2+, and La3+) and by gap junction blocking agents (carbenoxolone, octanol, heptanol, flufenamic acid, and 18alpha-glycyrrhetinic acid) with affinities close to those reported for blockade of gap junction intercellular communication. Glutamate efflux via hemichannels was also accompanied by greatly reduced glutamate uptake. Glutamate release in DCFS, however, was not significantly mediated by reversal of the glutamate transporter: release did not saturate and was not blocked by glutamate transporter blockers. Control experiments in DCFS precluded glutamate release by volume-sensitive anion channels, P2X7 purinergic receptor pores, or general purinergic receptor activation. Blocking intracellular Ca2+ mobilization by BAPTA-AM or thapsigargin did not inhibit glutamate release in DCFS. Divalent cation removal also induced glutamate release from intact CNS white matter (acutely isolated optic nerve) that was blocked by carbenoxolone, suggesting the existence of functional hemichannels in situ. Our results indicated that astrocyte hemichannels could influence CNS levels of extracellular glutamate with implications for normal and pathological brain function.

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