Gap junctions are clusters of aqueous channels that connect the cytoplasm of adjoining cells. Each cell contributes a hemichannel, or connexon, to each cell-cell channel. The cell-cell channels are permeable to relatively large molecules, and it was thought that opening of hemichannels to the extracellular space would kill cells through loss of metabolites, collapse of ionic gradients and influx of Ca2+. Recent findings indicate that specific non-junctional hemichannels do open under both physiological and pathological conditions, and that opening is functional or deleterious depending on the situation. Most of these studies utilized cells in tissue culture that expressed a specific gap junction protein, connexin 43. Several such examples are reviewed here, with a particular focus on astrocytes.
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