Imperial College London

Scientists a step closer to understanding how anaesthetics work in the brain

anaesthetics

New study using human-snail chimeras shows how anaesthetics target one specific protein in the brain<em> - News Release</em>

Imperial College London news release

For immediate use
Thursday 19 July 2007

New, more targeted, anaesthetics could be developed as a result of this studyAn important clue to how anaesthetics work on the human body has been provided by the discovery of a molecular feature common to both the human brain and the great pond snail nervous system, scientists say today. Researchers hope that the discovery of what makes a particular protein in the brain sensitive to anaesthetics could lead to the development of new anaesthetics with fewer side effects.

The study focuses on a particular protein found in neurons in the brain, known as a potassium channel, which stabilises and regulates the voltage across the membrane of the neuron. Communication between the millions of neurons in the brain – which is the basis of human consciousness and perception, including perception of pain - involves neurons sending nerve impulses to other neurons. In order for this to happen, the stabilising action of the potassium channel has to be overcome. Earlier studies on great pond snails by the same team identified that anaesthetics seemed to selectively enhance the regulating action of the potassium channel, preventing the neuron from firing at all – meaning the neuron was effectively anaesthetised.

The new research has identified a specific amino acid in the potassium channel which, when mutated, blocks anaesthetic activation. Lead author, Biophysics Professor Nick Franks  from Imperial College London, explains how this will allow the importance of the potassium channel in anaesthetic action to be established:

"We've known for over 20 years now that these potassium channels in the human brain may be important anaesthetic targets. However, until now, we've had no direct way to test this idea. Because a single mutation can block the effects of anaesthetics on this potassium channel without affecting it in any other way, it could be introduced into mice to see if they also become insensitive to anaesthetics. If they do, then this establishes the channel as a key target."

The group carried out their new study, published in the 20 July issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, by cloning the potassium channel from a great pond snail and then making a series of chimeric channels – part snail and part human. The chimeras were used to identify the location of the precise amino acid to which the anaesthetic binds on the potassium channel, giving the team a clearer picture than ever before of the precise mechanism by which anaesthetics work.

This kind of research, explains Professor Franks, is important because understanding exactly how anaesthetics work may pave the way for the development of a new generation of anaesthetics which solely affect specific anaesthetic targets, which could potentially reduce the risks and side effects associated with current anaesthetics.

"At the moment, anaesthetics have many unwanted side-effects on the human body such as nausea and effects on the heart. This is because our current drugs are relatively non-selective and bind to several different targets in the body. A better understanding of how anaesthetics exert their desirable effects could lead to much more specific, targeted alternatives being developed, which could greatly reduce these problems," he said.

-Ends-

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Danielle Reeves, Imperial College London Press Office,
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Notes to editors:

1. 'Determinants of the anesthetic sensitivity of TASK channels: molecular cloning of an anesthetic-activated potassium channel from Lymnaea stagnalis', The Journal of Biological Chemistry, Friday 20 July 2007.

Isabelle Andres-Enguix*, Alex Caley*,1, Raquel Yustos*, Mark A. Schumacher*,2, Pietro D. Spanu#, Robert Dickinson*,3, Mervyn Maze*,3 & Nicholas P. Franks*,3

From the Biophysics Section*, Blackett Laboratory, and Division of Biology#, Imperial College, South Kensington, London SW7 2AZ, UK

1. Present address: School of Pharmacy, University of London, 29/39 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AX, UK.
2. Present address: Dept. of Anesthesia and Perioperative Care, 513 Parnassus Avenue, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, CA 94143-0427, USA
3. Department of Anaesthetics, Pain Medicine and Intensive Care, Imperial College School of Medicine, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London, SW10 9NH, UK.

2. About Imperial College London

Rated as the world's ninth best university in the 2006 Times Higher Education Supplement University Rankings, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 11,500 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality.

Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and management and delivers practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

With 66 Fellows of the Royal Society among our current academic staff and distinguished past members of the College including 14 Nobel Laureates and two Fields Medallists, Imperial's contribution to society has been immense. Inventions and innovations include the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of our research for the benefit of all continues today with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to tackle climate change and mathematical modelling to predict and control the spread of infectious diseases.

The College's 100 years of living science will be celebrated throughout 2007 with a range of events to mark the Centenary of the signing of Imperial's founding charter on 8 July 1907.

Website: www.imperial.ac.uk

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