Liquid general anesthetics lower critical temperatures in plasma membrane vesicles

Biophys J. 2013 Dec 17;105(12):2751-9. doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2013.11.005.


A large and diverse array of small hydrophobic molecules induce general anesthesia. Their efficacy as anesthetics has been shown to correlate both with their affinity for a hydrophobic environment and with their potency in inhibiting certain ligand-gated ion channels. In this study we explore the effects that n-alcohols and other liquid anesthetics have on the two-dimensional miscibility critical point observed in cell-derived giant plasma membrane vesicles (GPMVs). We show that anesthetics depress the critical temperature (Tc) of these GPMVs without strongly altering the ratio of the two liquid phases found below Tc. The magnitude of this affect is consistent across n-alcohols when their concentration is rescaled by the median anesthetic concentration (AC50) for tadpole anesthesia, but not when plotted against the overall concentration in solution. At AC50 we see a 4°C downward shift in Tc, much larger than is typically seen in the main chain transition at these anesthetic concentrations. GPMV miscibility critical temperatures are also lowered to a similar extent by propofol, phenylethanol, and isopropanol when added at anesthetic concentrations, but not by tetradecanol or 2,6 diterbutylphenol, two structural analogs of general anesthetics that are hydrophobic but have no anesthetic potency. We propose that liquid general anesthetics provide an experimental tool for lowering critical temperatures in plasma membranes of intact cells, which we predict will reduce lipid-mediated heterogeneity in a way that is complimentary to increasing or decreasing cholesterol. Also, several possible implications of our results are discussed in the context of current models of anesthetic action on ligand-gated ion channels.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alcohols / pharmacology*
  • Anesthetics, General / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Membrane / drug effects*
  • Rats
  • Temperature*


  • Alcohols
  • Anesthetics, General