Inhibition of Human 42 Neuronal Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptors by Volatile Aromatic Anesthetics Depends on Drug Hydrophobicity

Solt, Ken MD*†; Kelly, Elizabeth W. BA†‡; Cotten, Joseph F. MD, PhD*†; Raines, Douglas E. MD*†

doi: 10.1213/ANE.0b013e3181c5f689
Anesthetic Pharmacology: Research Reports

BACKGROUND: Volatile aromatic compounds such as benzene are general anesthetics that cause amnesia, hypnosis, and immobility in response to noxious stimuli when inhaled. Although these compounds are not used clinically, they are frequently found in commercial items such as solvents and household cleaning products and are abused as inhalant drugs. Volatile aromatic anesthetics are useful pharmacological tools for probing the relationship between chemical structure and drug activity at putative general anesthetic targets. Neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine (nACh) receptors are ligand-gated ion channels widely expressed in the brain, which are thought to play important roles in learning and memory. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that aromatic anesthetics reversibly inhibit α4β2 neuronal nACh receptor function and sought to determine the structural correlates of receptor inhibition.

METHODS: Electrophysiological techniques were used to quantify the effects of 8 volatile aromatic anesthetics on currents elicited by 1 mM ACh and mediated by human α4β2 nACh receptors expressed in Xenopus oocytes.

RESULTS: All of the volatile aromatic anesthetics used in this study reversibly inhibited α4β2 nACh receptors with IC50 values ranging from 0.00091 atm for 1,2-difluorobenzene to 0.045 atm for hexafluorobenzene. With the exception of hexafluorobenzene, all of the compounds had IC50 values less than minimum alveolar concentration. Inhibitory potency correlated poorly with the cation-π binding energies of the compounds (r2 = 0.48, P = 0.059). However, there was a good correlation between inhibitory potency and the octanol/gas partition coefficient (r2 = 0.87, P = 0.0008).

CONCLUSIONS: Volatile aromatic anesthetics potently and reversibly inhibit human α4β2 neuronal nACh receptors. This inhibition may play a role in producing amnesia. In contrast to N-methyl-d-aspartate receptors, the inhibitory potencies of aromatic anesthetics for α4β2 neuronal nACh receptors seem to be dependent on drug hydrophobicity rather than electrostatic properties. This implies that the volatile aromatic anesthetic binding site in the α4β2 neuronal nACh receptor is hydrophobic in character and differs from the nature of the binding site in N-methyl-d-aspartate receptors.

Published ahead of print November 21, 2009

From the *Department of Anaesthesia, Harvard Medical School; and †Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts.

‡Currently at Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Accepted for publication September 29, 2009.

Published ahead of print November 21, 2009

Supported by National Institutes of Health Grant P01-GM58448, The Foundation for Anesthesia Education and Research, and the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA.

KS and DER helped to design the study, analyze the data, and write the manuscript. EWK and JFC helped to conduct the study and write the manuscript.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Ken Solt, MD, Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care, Massachusetts General Hospital, 55 Fruit St., GRB-444, Boston, MA 02114. Address e-mail to

Article Outline

Volatile aromatic compounds such as benzene are general anesthetics that produce amnesia, hypnosis, and immobility in response to noxious stimuli when inhaled.1 Although these compounds are not used clinically, they are frequently found in commercial items such as solvents and household cleaning products and are abused as inhalant drugs. They are also used as pharmacological tools for assessing the importance of structural properties in defining anesthetic potency on relevant molecular targets. In a previous study, Raines et al.2 demonstrated that the inhibitory potencies of volatile aromatic anesthetics for human NR1/NR2B N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptors correlate strongly with the abilities of the drugs to form cation-π binding interactions. Anesthetics with high π-electron density (such as benzene) were nearly 100-fold more potent than highly fluorinated compounds with low π-electron density (such as hexafluorobenzene), suggesting that aromatic anesthetics bind to an NMDA receptor site that contains a positive charge, leading to subsequent inhibition of receptor function. Recent studies have shown that volatile aromatic anesthetics also produce γ-aminobutyric acid type A (GABAA) receptor enhancement3 and voltage-gated sodium channel inhibition,4 which may also contribute to the behavioral effects of these drugs.

Neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine (nACh) receptors are cation-selective ligand-gated ion channels that are widely expressed in the brain. Postsynaptic neuronal nACh receptors mediate excitatory synaptic transmission, whereas presynaptic receptors modulate the release of several neurotransmitters including GABA, dopamine, and glutamate.5–7 Neuronal nACh receptors are thought to mediate a variety of important brain functions such as learning and memory.8–10 One of the most common neuronal nACh receptor subtypes found in the brain is a heteromer composed of α4 and β2 subunits,11 and α4β2 nACh receptors have been shown to be highly sensitive to a wide range of inhaled and IV general anesthetics.12–17 Some inhalation anesthetics such as cyclopropane and butane, which do not appreciably enhance the function of GABAA receptors at clinically relevant concentrations, are potent inhibitors of α4β2 nACh receptors.18 Although nACh receptors do not mediate anesthetic-induced immobility,19,20 nonimmobilizing halogenated alkanes such as F6 have been shown to inhibit α4β2 nACh receptors at concentrations that cause memory impairment in rats,18,21 suggesting that neuronal nACh receptors may play a role in mediating anesthetic-induced amnesia.

Because neuronal nACh receptors are inhibited by many inhaled and IV general anesthetic drugs, we hypothesized that they are also reversibly inhibited by volatile aromatic anesthetics. We used electrophysiological techniques to assess the inhibitory potencies of 8 aromatic compounds for human α4β2 nACh receptors and used a similar approach from the previous study with NMDA receptors2 to establish the structural correlates of α4β2 nACh receptor inhibition.

Back to Top | Article Outline


This study was approved by the Massachusetts General Hospital Subcommittee on Research Animal Care. Ovary lobes were harvested from adult female Xenopus laevis frogs (Xenopus One, Ann Arbor, MI) through a small laparotomy incision after frogs were anesthetized with 0.2% tricaine (ethyl-m-aminobenzoate) and hypothermia. Lobes were placed in OR-2 solution (82 mM NaCl, 2 mM KCl, 1 mM MgCl2, and 5 mM HEPES, adjusted to pH 7.4 using NaOH) containing 1 mg/mL collagenase D for 3 h to remove connective tissue.

Messenger RNA encoding the human α4 and β2 neuronal nACh receptor subunits were synthesized from linearized cDNA templates generously provided by Jon Lindstrom, PhD (University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA), using the mMessage mMachine SP6 kit (Applied Biosystems/Ambion, Austin, TX). Stage 4 and 5 oocytes were selected and injected with approximately 5 ng of a 1:1 mixture of α4 and β2 subunit mRNA. Injected oocytes were kept at 18°C in an incubating buffer (96 mM NaCl, 2 mM KCl, 10 mM HEPES, 1.8 mM CaCl2, 1.0 mM MgCl2, 5 U/mL penicillin, and 5 μg/mL streptomycin, adjusted to pH 7.4 using NaOH) for at least 18 h before electrophysiological studies.

All electrophysiological recordings were performed at room temperature (22°C–24°C) using the 2-electrode voltage-clamp technique. Capillary glass electrodes filled with 3 M KCl and possessing open tip resistances <5 MΩ were used to clamp oocytes at a membrane potential of −50 mV using a GeneClamp 500B amplifier (Molecular Devices, Sunnyvale, CA). Oocytes were continuously perfused in a 0.04-mL recording chamber with ND-96 buffer (96 mM NaCl, 2 mM KCl, 10 mM HEPES, 1.0 mM CaCl2, and 0.8 mM MgCl2, adjusted to pH 7.4 using NaOH) at a rate of 4–6 mL/min. Perfusion was controlled with a 6-channel valve controller (Warner Instruments, Hamden, CT) interfaced with a Digidata 1322A data acquisition system (Molecular Devices). The perfusion apparatus was constructed using gas-tight glass syringes and Teflon tubing to minimize absorptive and evaporative loss of anesthetic compounds. Using gas chromatography, we have found that volatile anesthetic loss using this technique is <15%. Current responses were recorded using Clampex v9.0 software (Molecular Devices) and filtered using a Bessel (8-pole) low-pass filter with a −3 dB cutoff at 1.56 Hz using Clampfit v9.0 software (Molecular Devices) before analysis.

Volatile aromatic anesthetic stock solutions were prepared by weighing the amount of drug necessary to make 250 mL of a concentrated anesthetic solution in a glass bottle. After quickly adding 250 mL of ND-96 buffer, the bottle was sealed with a polytetrafluoroethylene-coated cap, and the mixture was stirred overnight with a polytetrafluoroethylene-coated stir bar. The amount of air in the bottle was kept at a minimum (<5% of the total volume). The resulting stock solution was diluted with ND-96 buffer (with or without acetylcholine) in gas-tight glass syringes to obtain the final desired anesthetic concentrations. The anesthetizing concentrations of volatile aromatic anesthetics were defined as the concentrations corresponding to minimum alveolar concentration (MAC) in rats1 because human MAC data are unavailable for these drugs. MAC (in atm) was converted to aqueous concentrations using the equation:

where Caq is the aqueous concentration of anesthetic (in mM), α is the aqueous/gas partition coefficient at 37°C, and P is the gaseous partial pressure of anesthetic in atmospheres.22 All chemicals were purchased from Sigma-Aldrich (St. Louis, MO).

For each experiment, an initial control current was elicited by perfusing the oocyte with 1 mM ACh for 15 s. After a recovery period in buffer for 5 min, the test anesthetic was preapplied to the oocyte for 30 s, followed immediately by a 30-s application of anesthetic with 1 mM ACh. After another recovery period of 5 min, a second control current was elicited by perfusing the oocyte with 1 mM ACh for 15 s to ensure reversibility of any drug-induced change in current response. Anesthetic-induced inhibition of peak current amplitude was quantified using the average of the 2 control experiments before and after anesthetic exposure.

Anesthetic concentration-response relationships were obtained by plotting the percent of control current in the presence of anesthetic against anesthetic concentration. Concentration-response data were fitted to a Hill equation in the form:

where Ipeak is the normalized peak current amplitude evoked by 1 mM ACh in the presence of anesthetic, IC50 is the concentration of anesthetic that inhibits the peak current amplitude to one-half of control, and n is the Hill coefficient. For curve fitting, the maximal and minimal y axis values were constrained to 100% and 0%, respectively. All curve fitting, linear regression, and statistical analyses were performed using Prism v4.03 (GraphPad, San Diego, CA). Multiple regression analysis was performed using Instat v3.10 (GraphPad). Cation-π binding energy, octanol/gas partition coefficient, and MAC (in rats) for each of the 8 compounds used in this study have been determined previously,1,2 and these published values were used for data analysis.

Back to Top | Article Outline


All 8 aromatic anesthetics used in this study reversibly inhibited currents induced by 1 mM ACh in a concentration-dependent manner. Figure 1 shows representative electrophysiological traces obtained when ACh was applied in the absence and presence of 0.0048 atm hexafluorobenzene (3 MAC) and 0.0064 atm 1,2-difluorobenzene (1 MAC). The second control traces from both experiments are shown to demonstrate the reversibility of anesthetic-induced current inhibition. In this set of experiments, hexafluorobenzene and 1,2-difluorobenzene produced 35.8% and 95.7% inhibition, respectively.

A plot of normalized peak current amplitude versus anesthetic concentration is shown in Figure 2 for hexafluorobenzene (the least potent compound) and 1,2-difluorobenzene (the most potent), demonstrating a 50-fold difference in potency between these 2 drugs. IC50 (in atm) and IC50/MAC for all 8 compounds are listed in Table 1. All of the compounds had similar Hill coefficients ranging from −1.0 to −1.3. With the exception of hexafluorobenzene, all of the compounds produced half-maximal inhibition at concentrations below MAC.

Figure 3 plots inhibitory potency against cation-π binding energy for the 8 anesthetics. Linear regression analysis yielded a correlation coefficient (r2) of 0.48 and a slope that did not significantly deviate from 0 (P = 0.06). Figure 4 plots inhibitory potency against log (octanol/gas partition coefficient). Linear regression analysis yielded r2 = 0.87, with a slope that deviated significantly from 0 (P = 0.0008). Multiple regression analysis yielded r2 = 0.87, with log (octanol/gas partition coefficient) making a significant contribution to the correlation (P = 0.01), whereas cation-π binding energy did not (P = 0.80).

For the conventional inhalation anesthetics isoflurane and halothane, published values for octanol/gas and aqueous/gas partition coefficients23,24 and IC50 for α4β2 nACh receptors expressed in Xenopus oocytes12 were used to plot log (1/IC50) against log (octanol/gas partition coefficient). As Figure 4 demonstrates, the correlation observed for aromatic anesthetics did not hold for isoflurane and halothane.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Although they are not used clinically, volatile aromatic anesthetics are useful pharmacological tools for assessing how chemical properties define anesthetic potency for relevant molecular targets. In addition, although conventional inhalation anesthetics such as isoflurane and halothane produce immobility in the spinal cord,25–27 1,2-difluorobenzene is capable of producing immobility in the brain,28 suggesting that some volatile aromatic compounds may produce general anesthesia by mechanisms that differ from those of conventional inhalation anesthetics. Therefore, understanding the mechanisms underlying aromatic anesthetic actions may prove valuable in the design of novel anesthetics.

Previous work has demonstrated that volatile aromatic anesthetics inhibit NMDA receptors2 and voltage-gated sodium channels,4 and enhance the function of GABAA receptors.3 In this study, we tested the hypothesis that volatile aromatic anesthetics reversibly inhibit human α4β2 nACh receptors, and found this to be true for all of the compounds tested. Although nACh receptors do not mediate anesthetic-induced immobility,19,20 potent inhibition of α4β2 nACh receptors may mediate certain behavioral effects of both conventional and aromatic volatile anesthetics, such as amnesia.18,21

We also tested the hypothesis that the inhibitory potencies of volatile aromatic anesthetics for α4β2 nACh receptors depend on the ability of the drug to engage in cation-π interactions, by studying 8 aromatic agents whose electrostatic properties vary dramatically. Benzene has a dense π-electron cloud that can interact strongly with positive charges at the binding site. Substitution of fluorine atoms onto the ring reduces the density of the π-electron cloud and the strength of the interaction. We did not find a strong correlation between the α4β2 nACh receptor inhibitory potencies of aromatic anesthetics and their abilities to engage in cation-π interactions. Therefore, we conclude that such interactions do not contribute significantly to aromatic anesthetic action on the α4β2 nACh receptor.

However, we found a strong correlation (r2 = 0.87) between inhibitory potency and octanol/gas partition coefficient that was not improved by accounting for cation-π binding energy using a multiple regression analysis. Although our results do not prove that all volatile aromatic anesthetics bind to the same site on α4β2 nACh receptors, they suggest that hydrophobic interactions are important determinants of volatile aromatic anesthetic inhibition of α4β2 nACh receptors. Such interactions are also important for the actions of other volatile agents, because structurally diverse volatile clinical anesthetics and nonimmobilizers inhibit α4β2 nACh receptors with potencies that correlate with their hydrophobicities.18 However, the same correlation between potency and hydrophobicity for volatile aromatic anesthetics was not observed for isoflurane and halothane, suggesting that conventional inhalation anesthetics and volatile aromatic anesthetics may bind to different inhibitory sites in α4β2 nACh receptors.

Although we found no evidence to support a role for cation-π interactions in defining aromatic anesthetic inhibitory potency on α4β2 nACh receptors, such interactions are thought to define inhibitory potency on NMDA receptors.2 Cation-π interactions presumably enhance NMDA receptor inhibitory potency by stabilizing aromatic anesthetic binding. However, we previously found that highly fluorinated aromatic anesthetics such as pentafluorobenzene and hexafluorobenzene (which are weak NMDA receptor inhibitors at MAC29) potently enhance GABAA receptor function at the same concentrations, whereas the opposite is true for aromatic anesthetics with dense π-electron clouds (such as benzene and fluorobenzene).3 In this study, we found that anesthetic hydrophobicity is a much better predictor of α4β2 nACh receptor inhibition than the abilities of the drugs to participate in cation-π interactions. Taken together, our previous and current results suggest that the molecular determinants of volatile aromatic anesthetic potency for NMDA receptor inhibition, GABAA receptor enhancement, and neuronal nACh receptor inhibition are distinct. These data may be valuable in the future design of novel, target-specific general anesthetic drugs.

In summary, electrophysiological techniques were used in this study to demonstrate that volatile aromatic anesthetics potently and reversibly inhibit the function of human α4β2 nACh receptors. For all but 1 of the compounds (hexafluorobenzene), IC50 was a fraction of MAC, supporting the role of the α4β2 nACh receptor in mediating anesthetic-induced amnesia for those drugs. We found a poor correlation between the inhibitory potencies and the cation-π binding energies of the compounds, suggesting that the molecular determinants of inhibition for NMDA receptors and α4β2 nACh receptors are distinct. The strong correlation between anesthetic potency and hydrophobicity suggests that these compounds bind to a hydrophobic domain in the α4β2 nACh receptor to produce inhibition, and that the electrostatic properties of these drugs do not play a significant role in determining receptor binding and subsequent inhibition.

Back to Top | Article Outline


1.Fang Z, Sonner J, Laster MJ, Ionescu P, Kandel L, Koblin DD, Eger EI II, Halsey MJ. Anesthetic and convulsant properties of aromatic compounds and cycloalkanes: implications for mechanisms of narcosis. Anesth Analg 1996;83:1097–104
2.Raines DE, Gioia F, Claycomb RJ, Stevens RJ. The N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor inhibitory potencies of aromatic inhaled drugs of abuse: evidence for modulation by cation-pi interactions. J Pharmacol Exp Ther 2004;311:14–21
3.Kelly EW, Solt K, Raines DE. Volatile aromatic anesthetics variably impact human gamma-aminobutyric acid type A receptor function. Anesth Analg 2007;105:1287–92
4.Horishita T, Eger EI II, Harris RA. The effects of volatile aromatic anesthetics on voltage-gated Na+ channels expressed in Xenopus oocytes. Anesth Analg 2008;107:1579–86
5.Alkondon M, Albuquerque EX. The nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subtypes and their function in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex. Prog Brain Res 2004;145:109–20
6.Lendvai B, Vizi ES. Nonsynaptic chemical transmission through nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. Physiol Rev 2008;88:333–49
7.Champtiaux N, Gotti C, Cordero-Erausquin M, David DJ, Przybylski C, Lena C, Clementi F, Moretti M, Rossi FM, Le Novere N, McIntosh JM, Gardier AM, Changeux JP. Subunit composition of functional nicotinic receptors in dopaminergic neurons investigated with knock-out mice. J Neurosci 2003;23:7820–9
8.Kenney JW, Gould TJ. Modulation of hippocampus-dependent learning and synaptic plasticity by nicotine. Mol Neurobiol 2008;38:101–21
9.Cordero-Erausquin M, Marubio LM, Klink R, Changeux JP. Nicotinic receptor function: new perspectives from knockout mice. Trends Pharmacol Sci 2000;21:211–7
10.Tassonyi E, Charpantier E, Muller D, Dumont L, Bertrand D. The role of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the mechanisms of anesthesia. Brain Res Bull 2002;57:133–50
11.Flores CM, Rogers SW, Pabreza LA, Wolfe BB, Kellar KJ. A subtype of nicotinic cholinergic receptor in rat brain is composed of alpha 4 and beta 2 subunits and is up-regulated by chronic nicotine treatment. Mol Pharmacol 1992;41:31–7
12.Violet JM, Downie DL, Nakisa RC, Lieb WR, Franks NP. Differential sensitivities of mammalian neuronal and muscle nicotinic acetylcholine receptors to general anesthetics. Anesthesiology 1997;86:866–74
13.Flood P, Ramirez-Latorre J, Role L. Alpha 4 beta 2 neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the central nervous system are inhibited by isoflurane and propofol, but alpha 7-type nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are unaffected. Anesthesiology 1997;86:859–65
14.Yamashita M, Mori T, Nagata K, Yeh JZ, Narahashi T. Isoflurane modulation of neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors expressed in human embryonic kidney cells. Anesthesiology 2005;102:76–84
15.Coates KM, Flood P. Ketamine and its preservative, benzethonium chloride, both inhibit human recombinant alpha7 and alpha4beta2 neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in Xenopus oocytes. Br J Pharmacol 2001;134:871–9
16.Yamakura T, Harris RA. Effects of gaseous anesthetics nitrous oxide and xenon on ligand-gated ion channels. Comparison with isoflurane and ethanol. Anesthesiology 2000;93:1095–101
17.Flood P, Role LW. Neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptor modulation by general anesthetics. Toxicol Lett 1998;100- 101:149–53
18.Raines DE, Claycomb RJ, Forman SA. Nonhalogenated anesthetic alkanes and perhalogenated nonimmobilizing alkanes inhibit alpha(4)beta(2) neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. Anesth Analg 2002;95:573–7
19.Eger EI II, Zhang Y, Laster M, Flood P, Kendig JJ, Sonner JM. Acetylcholine receptors do not mediate the immobilization produced by inhaled anesthetics. Anesth Analg 2002;94:1500–4
20.Flood P, Sonner JM, Gong D, Coates KM. Heteromeric nicotinic inhibition by isoflurane does not mediate MAC or loss of righting reflex. Anesthesiology 2002;97:902–5
21.Matsuura T, Kamiya Y, Itoh H, Higashi T, Yamada Y, Andoh T. Inhibitory effects of isoflurane and nonimmobilizing halogenated compounds on neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. Anesthesiology 2002;97:1541–9
22.Franks NP, Lieb WR. Selective actions of volatile general anaesthetics at molecular and cellular levels. Br J Anaesth 1993;71:65–76
23.Taheri S, Halsey MJ, Liu J, Eger EI II, Koblin DD, Laster MJ. What solvent best represents the site of action of inhaled anesthetics in humans, rats, and dogs? Anesth Analg 1991;72:627–34
24.Smith RA, Porter EG, Miller KW. The solubility of anesthetic gases in lipid bilayers. Biochim Biophys Acta 1981;645:327–38
25.Antognini JF, Schwartz K. Exaggerated anesthetic requirements in the preferentially anesthetized brain. Anesthesiology 1993;79: 1244–9
26.Rampil IJ, Mason P, Singh H. Anesthetic potency (MAC) is independent of forebrain structures in the rat. Anesthesiology 1993;78:707–12
27.Rampil IJ. Anesthetic potency is not altered after hypothermic spinal cord transection in rats. Anesthesiology 1994;80:606–10
28.Antognini JF, Raines DE, Solt K, Barter LS, Atherley RJ, Bravo E, Laster MJ, Jankowska K, Eger EI II. Hexafluorobenzene acts in the spinal cord, whereas o-difluorobenzene acts in both brain and spinal cord, to produce immobility. Anesth Analg 2007; 104:822–8
29.Solt K, Eger EI II, Raines DE. Differential modulation of human N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors by structurally diverse general anesthetics. Anesth Analg 2006;102:1407–11
© 2010 International Anesthesia Research Society