Alcohol (ethanol) consumption alters neural activity in the brain by modulating different types of ion channels. An emerging concept in the field is that some of the physiological effects of ethanol are mediated by direct modulation of ion channels in the brain. One of the targets in the brain for ethanol is the G protein-gated inwardly rectifying potassium (GIRK) channel, which is activated by ethanol. Mice lacking GIRK2 channels exhibit diminished ethanol-induced tolerance to pain and self-administer more ethanol than wild-type mice. Moreover, a quantitative trait loci with a large effect on predisposition to sedative withdrawal, such as from ethanol, was narrowed to a region on chromosome 1 in mice that contains Girk3 gene. GIRK3 knockout mice exhibit less severe sedative-hypnotic withdrawal. Though GIRK2 and GIRK2/3 channels are implicated in ethanol-related behaviors, the molecular mechanism underlying this response is not well understood. Recently, we showed with high-resolution structural studies that alcohols bind directly to hydrophobic pockets of inwardly rectifying potassium channels. Mutations in the alcohol-binding pocket of GIRK2 channels significantly alter ethanol activation. We hypothesize that ethanol binds to hydrophobic pockets in GIRK2/3 channels and facilitate a conformational change that is relayed to the channel's gate and opens the channel. In this research proposal, we plan to use an innovative approach of high-resolution crystallographic studies, structure-based mutagenesis and advanced electrophysiological recordings to investigate this hypothesis. Specifically, we will conduct a structure-function analysis of the ethanol-binding pocket in GIRK2/3 channels (1), solve high-resolution structures of GIRK channels complexed with ethanol to reveal conformational changes in the channel protein that occur with ethanol-dependent gating (2), and elaborate mechanistic models for ethanol-dependent activation of GIRK channels, utilizing single-channel recordings and chemical modification of cysteine-substituted channels (3). Completion of these proposed experiments will reveal the structural basis of ethanol modulation of GIRK channels, which will provide insights into the mechanism of ethanol-modulation of other types of ion channels. Understanding the molecular mechanism underlying ethanol modulation of ion channels could lead to development of novel pharmaceutical agents for treating alcohol-dependence, directly benefiting human health.

Public Health Relevance

Ethanol, a major drug of addiction and abuse in the U.S., directly modulates brain ion channels, which control the excitability of brain neurons. The goal of this grant is to investigate the molecular and structural mechanisms underlying ethanol-dependent activation of neuronal potassium channels. Results from these studies could lead to the development of novel pharmaceutical agents that specifically modulate potassium channels or antagonize actions of ethanol.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
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Neurotoxicology and Alcohol Study Section (NAL)
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Liu, Qi-Ying
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Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
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New York
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