One of the goals in studying the electrical properties of neurosecretory cells is to relate their electrical activity to the process of secretion. A central question in these studies concerns the role of transmembrane calcium ion flux in the initiation of the secretory event. With regard to the secretory process in pituitary cells, several research groups have addressed this question in vitro using mixed primary anterior pituitary cell cultures or clonal cell lines derived from pituitary tumours. Other workers, including ourselves, have used homogeneous cell cultures derived from the pituitary intermediate lobes of rats to examine the characteristics of voltage-dependent conductances, the contribution of these conductances to action potentials and their role in stimulus-secretion coupling. Pars intermedia (PI) cells often fire spontaneous action potentials whose frequency can be modified by the injection of sustained currents through the recording electrode. In quiescent cells action potentials can also be evoked by the injection of depolarizing current stimuli. At around 20 degrees C these action potentials have a duration of about 5 ms. Although most of the inward current during action potentials is carried by sodium ions, a calcium ion component can be demonstrated under abnormal conditions. Voltage-clamp experiments have revealed that the membrane of these cells contains high-threshold, L-type, Ca2+ channels and low-threshold Ca2+ channels. Since hormone release from PI cells appears not to be dependent on action potential activity but does depend on external calcium ions, it is not clear what role these Ca2+ channels play in stimulus-secretion coupling in cells of the pituitary pars intermedia. One possibility is that the low-threshold Ca2+ channels are more important to the secretory process than the high-threshold channels.

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