Uptake of K(+) released by axons during action potential propagation is a major function of astrocytes. Here, we demonstrate the importance of glial inward rectifying potassium channels (Kir) in regulating extracellular K(+) ([K(+)](o)) and axonal electrical activity in CNS white matter of the mouse optic nerve. Increasing optic nerve stimulation frequency from 1 Hz to 10-35 Hz for 120 s resulted in a rise in [K(+)](o) and consequent decay in the compound action potential (CAP), a measure of reduced axonal activity. On cessation of high frequency stimulation, rapid K(+) clearance resulted in a poststimulus [K(+)](o) undershoot, followed by a slow recovery of [K(+)](o) and the CAP, which were more protracted with increasing stimulation frequency. Blockade of Kir (100 μM BaCl(2)) slowed poststimulus recovery of [K(+)](o) and the CAP at all stimulation frequencies, indicating a primary function of glial Kir was redistributing K(+) to the extracellular space to offset active removal by Na(+)-K(+) pumps. At higher levels of axonal activity, Kir blockade also increased [K(+)](o) accumulation, exacerbating the decline in the CAP and impeding its subsequent recovery. In the Kir4.1-/- mouse, astrocytes displayed a marked reduction of inward currents and were severely depolarized, resulting in retarded [K(+)](o) regulation and reduced CAP. The results demonstrate the importance of glial Kir in K(+) spatial buffering and sustaining axonal activity in the optic nerve. Glial Kir have increasing importance in K(+) clearance at higher levels of axonal activity, helping to maintain the physiological [K(+)](o) ceiling and ensure the fidelity of signaling between the retina and brain.
Copyright © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.