NaV1.1 channels and epilepsy


Corresponding author W. Catterall: University of Washington, Department of Pharmacology, SJ-30, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.  Email:


Voltage-gated sodium channels initiate action potentials in brain neurons, and sodium channel blockers are used in therapy of epilepsy. Mutations in sodium channels are responsible for genetic epilepsy syndromes with a wide range of severity, and the NaV1.1 channel encoded by the SCN1A gene is the most frequent target of mutations. Complete loss-of-function mutations in NaV1.1 cause severe myoclonic epilepsy of infancy (SMEI or Dravet's Syndrome), which includes severe, intractable epilepsy and comorbidities of ataxia and cognitive impairment. Mice with loss-of-function mutations in NaV1.1 channels have severely impaired sodium currents and action potential firing in hippocampal GABAergic inhibitory neurons without detectable effect on the excitatory pyramidal neurons, which would cause hyperexcitability and contribute to seizures in SMEI. Similarly, the sodium currents and action potential firing are also impaired in the GABAergic Purkinje neurons of the cerebellum, which is likely to contribute to ataxia. The imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory transmission in these mice can be partially corrected by compensatory loss-of-function mutations of NaV1.6 channels, and thermally induced seizures in these mice can be prevented by drug combinations that enhance GABAergic neurotransmission. Generalized epilepsy with febrile seizures plus (GEFS+) is caused by missense mutations in NaV1.1 channels, which have variable biophysical effects on sodium channels expressed in non-neuronal cells, but may primarily cause loss of function when expressed in mice. Familial febrile seizures is caused by mild loss-of-function mutations in NaV1.1 channels; mutations in these channels are implicated in febrile seizures associated with vaccination; and impaired alternative splicing of the mRNA encoding these channels may also predispose some children to febrile seizures. We propose a unified loss-of-function hypothesis for the spectrum of epilepsy syndromes caused by genetic changes in NaV1.1 channels, in which mild impairment predisposes to febrile seizures, intermediate impairment leads to GEFS+ epilepsy, and severe or complete loss of function leads to the intractable seizures and comorbidities of SMEI.