Background: Barbiturate anesthetics are optically active and usually exist in two mirror-image enantiomeric forms. Their stereoselective effects in mammals are well known, but remarkably few data are available concerning their effects on anesthetic targets in vitro. This is in part because of the lack of availability of pure barbiturate enantiomers. Such in vitro data could be used to test the relevance of putative molecular targets.
Methods: A high-performance liquid chromatography technique using a permethylated beta-cyclodextrin column was used to separate the optical isomers of three barbiturates in preparative quantities. The effects of the isomers on GABA-induced currents in stably transfected mouse fibroblast cells were investigated using the whole-cell patch-clamp technique.
Results: Highly purified optical isomers of hexobarbital, pentobarbital, and thiopental were prepared, and their effects were studied on a gamma-aminobutyric acid type A receptor of defined subunit composition. For each of the three barbiturates, both enantiomers potentiated gamma-aminobutyric acid-induced currents at pharmacologically relevant concentrations, with the S-enantiomer being more potent than the R-enantiomer by a factor of between 1.7 and 3.5. The degree of stereoselectivity did not vary greatly with anesthetic concentration.
Conclusions: The rank order and degree of stereoselectivity that we have observed for the enantiomers of hexobarbital, pentobarbital, and thiopental acting on the gamma-aminobutyric acid type A receptor are entirely consistent with this receptor playing a central role in the anesthetic actions of barbiturates.