GSBS Dissertations and Theses

Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program




First Thesis Advisor

Steven Treistman


rats, ethanol sensitivity, bk channels, Large-Conductance Calcium-Activated Potassium Channels, Drug Tolerance, Ethanol, Neurons, Rats


BK channels are well studied targets of acute ethanol action. They play a prominent role in neuronal excitability and have been shown to play a significant role in behavioral ethanol tolerance in invertebrates. The focus of my work centers on the effects of alcohol on the BK channel and comprises studies that examine how subcellular location affects acute ethanol sensitivity and how duration of acute alcohol exposure impacts the development of rapid tolerance. My results also provide potential mechanisms which underlie acute sensitivity and rapid tolerance.

I first explore BK channel sensitivity to ethanol in the three compartments (dendrite, cell body, and nerve terminal) of magnocellular neurons in the rat hypothalamic-neurohypophysial (HNS) system. The HNS system provides a particularly powerful preparation in which to study the distribution and regional properties of ion channel proteins because the cell bodies are physically separated from the nerve terminals. Using electrophysiological and immunohistochemical techniques I characterize the BK channel in each of the three primary compartments and find that dendritic BK channels, similar to somatic channels, but in contrast to nerve terminal channels, are insensitive to alcohol. Furthermore, the gating kinetics, calcium sensitivity, and iberiotoxin sensitivity of channels in the dendrite are similar to somatic channels but sharply contrast terminal channels. The biophysical and pharmacological properties of somatodendritic vs. nerve terminal channels are consistent with the characteristics of exogenously expressed αβ1 vs. αβ4 channels, respectively. Therefore, one possible explanation for my findings is a selective distribution of β1 subunits to the somatodendritic compartment and β4 subunits to the terminal compartment. This hypothesis is supported immunohistochemically by the appearance of distinct punctate β1 or β4 channel clusters in the membrane of somatodendritic or nerve terminal compartments, respectively. In conclusion, I found that alcohol sensitivity of BK channels within the HNS system is dependent on subcellular location and postulate that β-subunits modulate ethanol sensitivity of HNS BK channels.

In the second and primary focus of my thesis I explore tolerance development in the striatum, a brain region heavily implicated in addiction. Numerous studies have demonstrated that duration of drug exposure influences tolerance development and drug dependence. To further elucidate the mechanisms underlying behavioral tolerance I examined if BK channel tolerance was dependent on duration of alcohol exposure using patch clamp techniques in cultured striatal neurons from P8 rats. I found that persistence of rapid tolerance is indeed a function of exposure time and find it lasts surprisingly long. For example, after a 6 hr exposure to 20 mM ethanol, acute sensitivity was still suppressed at 24 hrs withdrawal. However, after a 1 or 3 hr exposure period, sensitivity had returned after only 4 hrs. I also found that during withdrawal from a 6 hr but not a 3 hr exposure the biophysical properties of BK channels change and that this change is correlated with an increase in mRNA levels of the alcohol insensitive STREX splice variant. Furthermore, BK channel properties during withdrawal from a 6 hr exposure to alcohol closely parallel the properties of STREX channels exogenously expressed in HEK293 cells. In conclusion I have established that BK channels develop rapid tolerance in striatal neurons, that rapid tolerance is dependent upon exposure protocol, and is surprisingly persistent. These findings present another mechanism underlying BK channel tolerance and possibly behavioral tolerance. Since these phenomena are dependent on duration of drug exposure my results may find relevance in explaining how drinking patterns impact the development of alcohol dependence in humans.



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