N-type calcium channels inactivate most rapidly in response to moderate, not extreme depolarization. This behavior reflects an inactivation rate that bears a U-shaped dependence on voltage. Despite this apparent similarity to calcium-dependent inactivation, N-type channel inactivation is insensitive to the identity of divalent charge carrier and, in some reports, to the level of internal buffering of divalent cations. Hence, the inactivation of N-type channels fits poorly with the 'classic' profile for either voltage-dependent or calcium-dependent inactivation. To investigate this unusual inactivation behavior, we expressed recombinant N-type calcium channels in mammalian HEK 293 cells, permitting in-depth correlation of ionic current inactivation with potential alterations of gating current properties. Such correlative measurements have been particularly useful in distinguishing among various inactivation mechanisms in other voltage-gated channels. Our main results are the following: 1) The degree of gating charge immobilization was unchanged by the block of ionic current and precisely matched by the extent of ionic current inactivation. These results argue for a purely voltage-dependent mechanism of inactivation. 2) The inactivation rate was fastest at a voltage where only ~1/3 of the total gating charge had moved. This unusual experimental finding implies that inactivation occurs most rapidly from intermediate closed conformations along the activation pathway, as we demonstrate with novel analytic arguments applied to coupled-inactivation schemes. These results provide strong, complementary support for a 'preferential closed-state' inactivation mechanism, recently proposed on the basis of ionic current measurements of recombinant N-type channels (Patil et al., 1998. Neuron. 20:1027-1038).
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