Intracellular recordings show that light-evoked hyperpolarizations of the apical and basal membranes of the cat retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) are altered by mild hypoxia. RPE cells, like glia, have a high K+ conductance, and measurements with K+-sensitive microelectrodes show that the hypoxic changes in the RPE cell are largely the result of changes in extracellular [K+] in the subretinal space ([K+]o) rather than direct effects on RPE cells. During hypoxia, light-evoked [K+]o, responses and membrane responses have longer times to peak, slower and less complete recovery during illumination, and larger amplitudes. In addition to the effects on light-evoked responses, hypoxia causes a depolarization of first the apical and then the basal membranes of RPE cells under dark-adapted conditions. The basal depolarization is accompanied by a decrease in basal membrane resistance. These depolarizations appear to be caused by a rapid increase in [K+]o at the onset of hypoxia, which is maximal in dark adaptation, and smaller if the retina is subjected to maintained illumination. All of the effects are graded with the severity of hypoxia and can be observed at arterial oxygen tensions as high as 65 mmHg, although the threshold may be even higher. We argue that the origin of hypoxic [K+]o changes is probably an inhibition of the photoreceptors’ Na+/K+ pump. This work then suggests that photoreceptors are more sensitive to hypoxia than previously believed, and that the high oxygen tension normally provided by the choroidal circulation is necessary for normal photoreceptor function.
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