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Ion Channels

  1. Diane Lipscombe,
  2. Cecilia P Toro

Published Online: 18 OCT 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000150.pub3



How to Cite

Lipscombe, D. and Toro, C. P. 2013. Ion Channels. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA

  1. Based in part on the previous version of this eLS article ‘Ion Channels’ (2005) by Diane Lipscombe.

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 18 OCT 2013


Ion channels are membrane proteins that create specialised routes for ions to cross cell membrane lipid bilayers selectively, and at relatively high speeds. All cells of all organisms use ion channels of different types to control a range of functions. The majority of electrical membrane signals originate from the flow of select types of ions through ion channels. Cellular control of ion channel activity is critical for single-cell and multicellular organisms to respond to their environments. Avoiding external threats, seeking nutrients, adapting to normal developmental processes, creating memories and modifying outputs according to previous events all involve ion channel activity. Ion channel dysfunction underlies multiple human disorders and diseases. Developmental disorders, pain syndromes that include extreme pain as well as congenital indifference to pain, certain types of migraines, epilepsies, ataxias, paralyses, cardiac arrhythmias and renal failure can all be due to malfunctioning ion channels. Thus, ion channels are critically important drug targets for the treatment of many illnesses and disorders.

Key Concepts:

  • Ion channels are found in all living cells.

  • Ion channels create specialised routes for ions to cross biological cell membranes.

  • Ion channels support the rapid flow of ions across biological membranes to generate electrical membrane signalling.

  • Ion channels are gated (opened and closed) by a wide range of biological signals.

  • Ion channels are selectively permeable to specific ions.

  • Certain ion channels control the influx of calcium, a critical intracellular second messenger.

  • A range of extracellular, intracellular and membrane signals alter the activity of ion channels.

  • Abnormal ion channel function underlies many disorders and diseases.

  • Ion channels are important targets of drugs and toxins.


  • electrical signalling;
  • neurons;
  • ion transport;
  • ion permeation;
  • membrane proteins;
  • ion channelopathies;
  • disease;
  • drugs