Article Text

Download PDFPDF
The Effect of the Neurolytic Agent Ethanol on Cytoplasmic Calcium in Arterial Smooth Muscle and Endothelium
  1. Michael E. Johnson, M.D., Ph.D.*,
  2. Christopher J. Sill, M.B.B.S.*,
  3. David L. Brown, M.D.*,
  4. Teresa J. Halsey, B.A. and
  5. Cindy B. Uhl*
  1. *Department of Anesthesiology, Mayo Foundation and Mayo Medical School, Rochester, Minnesota
  2. Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Mayo Foundation and Mayo Medical School, Rochester, Minnesota
  1. Reprint requests: Michael E. Johnson, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Anesthesiology, Mayo Clinic, 200 S.W. First Street, Rochester, MN 55905.


Background and Objectives Celiac plexus neurolysis, although effective in relieving pain associated with upper abdominal malignancy, occasionally results in paraplegia. Diffusion of the neurolytic agent to arteries supplying the spinal cord has been postulated as a cause, and previous studies with isolated lumbar segmental arteries have demonstrated contraction in response to ethanol and phenol. The mechanism of this contractile effect is unknown, but a role for insular free calcium (Ca2+ i) is suggested by the known involvement of Ca2+ i in both smooth muscle vasoconstriction and toxic cell injury. The authors sought to determine whether nontoxic concentrations of ethanol cause a direct elevation of Ca2+ i in arterial smooth muscle and endothelium.

Methods Primary cultures of human aortic smooth muscle and endothelial cells were studied to determine the direct effect of ethanol independent of interactions with agonists or contractile proteins. Ca2+ i levels were determined in single cells with digitized video fluorescence microscopy, using ratio imaging of the Ca2+ i-sensitive fluorophore fura-2.

Results In aortic smooth muscle cells, initial Ca2+ i was 98 ± 41 nM (n = 59 cells). Histamine (10 μM) as a positive control caused an increase in Ca2+ i, as expected. Ethanol alone, at doses of 2-5% (v/v) also caused a sustained elevation in Ca2+ i of physiologically significant magnitude. Ethanol at doses of 5% or lower did not cause any visibly apparent injury within 30 minutes. In contrast, 10% or higher ethanol doses quickly caused membrane blebbing, a sign of toxic injury, followed by cell death within 20 minutes. Aortic endothelial cells were more resistant to ethanol than smooth muscle cells, in terms of both Ca2+ i elevation and cell death.

Conclusions Ethanol, even at nontoxic concentrations, has a direct effect on aortic smooth muscle Ca2+ i, large enough to be associated with significant vasoconstriction. The findings suggest a possible role for pharmacologic agents that preserve Ca2+ i homeostasis in protecting against neurolysis-induced paraplegia, although additional study is required before clinical application is appropriate.

  • vascular smooth muscle
  • endothelium
  • cell culture
  • calcium
  • ethanol
  • celiac plexus block

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


  • A preliminary report of this work was presented in abstract form at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, San Francisco, October 19, 1994 (Anesthesiology 1994: 81: A102).

    Supported in part by National Institutes of Health grant HL 38668 and a CR20 grant from the Mayo Foundation Research Committee.