Interactions between model cell membranes and the neuroactive drug propofol

Petru Niga*, Petra M. Hansson-Mille, Agne Swerin, Per M. Claesson, Joachim Schoelkopf, Patrick A.C. Gane, Erik Bergendal, Andrea Tummino, Richard A. Campbell, C. Magnus Johnson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Vibrational sum frequency spectroscopy (VSFS) complemented by surface pressure isotherm and neutron reflectometry (NR) experiments were employed to investigate the interactions between propofol, a small amphiphilic molecule that currently is the most common general anaesthetic drug, and phospholipid monolayers. A series of biologically relevant saturated phospholipids of varying chain length from C18 to C14 were spread on either pure water or propofol (2,6-bis(1-methylethyl)phenol) solution in a Langmuir trough, and the change in the molecular structure of the film, induced by the interaction with propofol, was studied with respect to the surface pressure. The results from the surface pressure isotherm experiments revealed that propofol, as long as it remains at the interface, enhances the fluidity of the phospholipid monolayer. The VSF spectra demonstrate that for each phospholipid the amount of propofol in the monolayer region decreases with increasing surface pressure. Such squeeze out is in contrast to the enhanced interactions that can be exhibited by more complex amphiphilic molecules such as peptides. At surface pressures of 22–25 mN m−1, which are relevant for biological cell membranes, most of the propofol has been expelled from the monolayer, especially in the case of the C16 and C18 phospholipids that adopt a liquid condensed phase packing of its alkyl tails. At lower surface pressures of 5 mN m−1, the effect of propofol on the structure of the alkyl tails is enhanced when the phospholipids are present in a liquid expanded phase. Specifically, for the C16 phospholipid, NR data reveal that propofol is located exclusively in the head group region, which is rationalized in the context of previous studies. The results imply a non-homogeneous distribution of propofol in the plane of real cell membranes, which is an inference that requires urgent testing and may help to explain why such low concentration of the drug are required to induce general anaesthesia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)230-243
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Colloid and Interface Science
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sep 2018
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • Langmuir trough
  • Model membrane
  • Neutron reflectometry
  • Phospholipid monolayers
  • Propofol
  • Small amphiphilic drug
  • Surface pressure isotherm
  • Vibrational sum frequency spectroscopy


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