Non-technical summary

Nitrous oxide (N2O) has long been used as a pain reliever, but little is known of its targets in the body. We show that N2O indirectly inhibits T-type calcium channels through free radical reactions. These reactions depend on a histidine residue on the channel that binds metal ions. If we prevent this histidine from binding metals, N2O cannot inhibit T-currents. Mice that are treated with EUK-134 to remove free radicals show little pain relief after N2O administration. This report provides new information on how N2O interacts with ion channels, helping our understanding of how this popular pain reliever works.


Nitrous oxide (N2O, laughing gas) has been used as an anaesthetic and analgesic for almost two centuries, but its cellular targets remain unclear. Here, we present a molecular mechanism of nitrous oxide's selective inhibition of CaV3.2 low-voltage-activated (T-type) calcium channels in pain pathways. Using site-directed mutagenesis and metal chelators such as diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid and deferoxamine, we reveal that a unique histidine at position 191 of CaV3.2 participates in a critical metal binding site, which may in turn interact with N2O to produce reactive oxygen species (ROS). These free radicals are then likely to oxidize H191 of CaV3.2 in a localized metal-catalysed oxidation reaction. Evidence of hydrogen peroxide and free radical intermediates is given in that N2O inhibition of CaV3.2 channels is attenuated when H2O2 is neutralized by catalase. We also use the adrenochrome test as an indicator of ROS in vitro in the presence of N2O and iron. Ensuing in vivo studies indicate that mice lacking CaV3.2 channels display decreased analgesia to N2O in response to formalin-induced inflammatory pain. Furthermore, a superoxide dismutase and catalase mimetic, EUK-134, diminished pain responses to formalin in wild-type mice, but EUK-134 and N2O analgesia were not additive. This suggests that reduced ROS levels led to decreased inflammation, but without the presence of ROS, N2O was not able to provide additional analgesia. These findings reveal a novel mechanism of interaction between N2O and ion channels, furthering our understanding of this widely used analgesic in pain processing.