Caffeine is known to activate influx of both mono- and divalent cations in various cell types, suggesting that this xanthine opens non-selective cation channels at the plasma membrane. This possibility was investigated in human erythrocytes, studying the caffeine action on net Ca(2+), Na(+) and K(+) movements in ATP-depleted cells. Whole populations and subpopulations of young and old erythrocytes were employed. Caffeine was tested in the presence of known mechanosensitive channel blockers (Gd(3+), neomycin and amiloride) and ruthenium red as a possible inhibitor. Caffeine enhanced net cation fluxes in a concentration-dependent way. In whole populations, the Ca(2+) entry elicited by 20 mM caffeine was fully suppressed by Gd(3+) (5 microM), amiloride (250 microM) and ruthenium red (100 microM) and partially blocked by neomycin (100 microM). The above blockers also inhibited caffeine-dependent Na(+) entry whilst showing antagonistic effects on the corresponding K(+) efflux. These compounds fully suppressed hypotonically-induced (-35 mOsm/kg) Ca(2+) influx at nearly the same concentrations completely blocking caffeine-stimulated Ca(2+) entry. The effect of inhibitors on Ca(2+) influx in young cells exceeded that in old cells at similar concentrations. The results clearly show that caffeine stimulates a stretch-activated Ca(2+) channel in human red cells and that aged cells are less susceptible to mechanosensitive channel blockers.
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