Pay attention to potassium channels! First steps in the molecular identification of SK channels and their role in neuronal signal encoding.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen, Germany, have identified a novel potassium current activated by intracellular calcium that shapes the frequency encoding of signals in neurons of the hippocampus (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 96: 4662-4667, 1999). Together with a detailed mapping of the expression of calcium-activated potassium channels (SK channels) in the brain (Mol. Cell. Neurosci., ACADEMIC PRESS), their findings contribute to our understanding of the molecular basis of signal processing in neurons.

Ion channels are the basic elements generating electrical messages that are the units of rapid neural signalling. They are therefore key-molecules in the regulation of membrane excitability and of cell-to-cell communication in the nervous system, ultimately affecting higher processes such as the functional state of the brain (i.e. during sleep, awakeness, arousal, etc.) and the way experience changes the brain.

Potassium channels are structurally among the simplest in their superfamily of ion channels, and are encoded by at least 58 different mammalian genes. The functional meaning of this variety of potassium channels is largely unknown. After their cloning in the last decade, the present challenge is to understand where all these channels are expressed and what they exactly do there. In the case of neuronal potassium channels, this reductionist approach leads from the cloned molecules to the elucidation of how they shape the functional properties of single neurons, and ultimately to their effects on the properties of neuronal networks or even of whole brain regions.

Paola Pedarzani, Martin Stocker and collaborators at the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen have focused on a particular family of potassium channels, the small-conductance calcium-activated potassium channels (SK). These channels are activated by small changes in intracellular calcium levels, thereby integra

Contact: Paola Pedarzani, Martin Stocker
ppedarz@gwdg.de, mstocke@gwdg.de

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