Low Somatic Sodium Conductance Enhances Action Potential Precision in Time-Coding Auditory Neurons

J Neurosci. 2016 Nov 23;36(47):11999-12009. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1475-16.2016.


Auditory nerve fibers encode sounds in the precise timing of action potentials (APs), which is used for such computations as sound localization. Timing information is relayed through several cell types in the auditory brainstem that share an unusual property: their APs are not overshooting, suggesting that the cells have very low somatic sodium conductance (gNa). However, it is not clear how gNa influences temporal precision. We addressed this by comparing bushy cells (BCs) in the mouse cochlear nucleus with T-stellate cells (SCs), which do have normal overshooting APs. BCs play a central role in both relaying and refining precise timing information from the auditory nerve, whereas SCs discard precise timing information and encode the envelope of sound amplitude. Nucleated-patch recording at near-physiological temperature indicated that the Na current density was 62% lower in BCs, and the voltage dependence of gNa inactivation was 13 mV hyperpolarized compared with SCs. We endowed BCs with SC-like gNa using two-electrode dynamic clamp and found that synaptic activity at physiologically relevant rates elicited APs with significantly lower probability, through increased activation of delayed rectifier channels. In addition, for two near-simultaneous synaptic inputs, the window of coincidence detection widened significantly with increasing gNa, indicating that refinement of temporal information by BCs is degraded by gNa Thus, reduced somatic gNa appears to be an adaption for enhancing fidelity and precision in time-coding neurons.

Significance statement: Proper hearing depends on analyzing temporal aspects of sounds with high precision. Auditory neurons that specialize in precise temporal information have a suite of unusual intrinsic properties, including nonovershooting action potentials and few sodium channels in the soma. However, it was not clear how low sodium channel availability in the soma influenced the temporal precision of action potentials initiated in the axon initial segment. We studied this using dynamic clamp to mimic sodium channels in the soma, which yielded normal, overshooting action potentials. Increasing somatic sodium conductance had major negative consequences: synaptic activity evoked action potentials with lower fidelity, and the precision of coincidence detection was degraded. Thus, low somatic sodium channel availability appears to enhance fidelity and temporal precision.

Keywords: cochlear nucleus; dynamic clamp; sodium channels; spike initiation; synaptic transmission; time coding.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cochlear Nerve / physiology
  • Cochlear Nucleus / physiology*
  • Female
  • Ion Channel Gating / physiology
  • Long-Term Potentiation / physiology*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / physiology*
  • Sodium / metabolism*
  • Sodium Channels / physiology*
  • Time Perception / physiology*


  • Sodium Channels
  • Sodium