Ammonium chloride alters neuronal excitability and synaptic vesicle release

Sci Rep. 2017 Jul 11;7(1):5061. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-05338-5.


Genetically encoded pH-sensors are widely used in studying cell membrane trafficking and membrane protein turnover because they render exo-/endocytosis-associated pH changes to fluorescent signals. For imaging and analysis purposes, high concentration ammonium chloride is routinely used to alkalize intracellular membrane compartments under the assumption that it does not cause long-term effects on cellular processes being studied like neurotransmission. However, pathological studies about hyperammonemia have shown that ammonium is toxic to brain cells especially astrocytes and neurons. Here, we focus on ammonium's physiological impacts on neurons including membrane potential, cytosolic Ca2+ and synaptic vesicles. We have found that extracellularly applied ammonium chloride as low as 5 mM causes intracellular Ca2+-increase and a reduction of vesicle release even after washout. The often-used 50 mM ammonium chloride causes more extensive and persistent changes, including membrane depolarization, prolonged elevation of intracellular Ca2+ and diminution of releasable synaptic vesicles. Our findings not only help to bridge the discrepancies in previous studies about synaptic vesicle release using those pH-sensors or other vesicle specific reporters, but also suggest an intriguing relationship between intracellular pH and neurotransmission.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Ammonium Chloride / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Cell Membrane / drug effects
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Synaptic Vesicles / drug effects
  • Synaptic Vesicles / metabolism*


  • Ammonium Chloride
  • Calcium