K-ATP channels consist of two structurally different subunits: a pore-forming subunit of the Kir6.0-family (Kir6.1 or Kir6.2) and a sulfonylurea receptor (SUR1, SUR2, SUR2A, SUR2B) with regulatory activity. The functional diversity of K-ATP channels in brain is broad and of fundamental importance for neuronal activity. Here, using immunocytochemistry with monospecific antibodies against the Kir6.1 and Kir6.2 subunits, we analyze the regional and cellular distribution of both proteins in the adult rat brain. We find Kir6.2 to be widely expressed in all brain regions, suggesting that the Kir6.2 subunit forms the pore of the K-ATP channels in most neurons, presumably protecting the cells during cellular stress conditions such as hypoglycemia or ischemia. Especially in hypothalamic nuclei, in particular the ventromedial and arcuate nucleus, neurons display Kir6.2 immunoreactivity only, suggesting that Kir6.2 is the pore-forming subunit of the K-ATP channels in the glucose-responsive neurons of the hypothalamus. In contrast, Kir6.1-like immunolabeling is restricted to astrocytes (Thomzig et al.  Mol Cell Neurosci 18:671-690) in most areas of the rat brain and very weak or absent in neurons. Only in distinct nuclei or neuronal subpopulations is a moderate or even strong Kir6.1 staining detected. The biological functions of these K-ATP channels still need to be elucidated.
Copyright 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.