Voltage gated sodium channels (VGSCs) were first identified in terms of their role in the upstroke of the action potential. The underlying proteins were later identified as saxitoxin and scorpion toxin receptors consisting of α and β subunits. We now know that VGSCs are heterotrimeric complexes consisting of a single pore forming α subunit joined by two β subunits; a noncovalently linked β1 or β3 and a covalently linked β2 or β4 subunit. VGSC α subunits contain all the machinery necessary for channel cell surface expression, ion conduction, voltage sensing, gating, and inactivation, in one central, polytopic, transmembrane protein. VGSC β subunits are more than simple accessories to α subunits. In the more than two decades since the original cloning of β1, our knowledge of their roles in physiology and pathophysiology has expanded immensely. VGSC β subunits are multifunctional. They confer unique gating mechanisms, regulate cellular excitability, affect brain development, confer distinct channel pharmacology, and have functions that are independent of the α subunits. The vast array of functions of these proteins stems from their special station in the channelome: being the only known constituents that are cell adhesion and intra/extracellular signaling molecules in addition to being part of channel complexes. This functional trifecta and how it goes awry demonstrates the power outside the pore in ion channel signaling complexes, broadening the term channelopathy beyond defects in ion conduction.
This article is part of the Special Issue entitled ‘Channelopathies.’