Muscarinic acetylcholine receptors control baseline activity and Hebbian stimulus timing-dependent plasticity in fusiform cells of the dorsal cochlear nucleus

J Neurophysiol. 2017 Mar 1;117(3):1229-1238. doi: 10.1152/jn.00270.2016. Epub 2016 Dec 21.


Cholinergic modulation contributes to adaptive sensory processing by controlling spontaneous and stimulus-evoked neural activity and long-term synaptic plasticity. In the dorsal cochlear nucleus (DCN), in vitro activation of muscarinic acetylcholine receptors (mAChRs) alters the spontaneous activity of DCN neurons and interacts with N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) and endocannabinoid receptors to modulate the plasticity of parallel fiber synapses onto fusiform cells by converting Hebbian long-term potentiation to anti-Hebbian long-term depression. Because noise exposure and tinnitus are known to increase spontaneous activity in fusiform cells as well as alter stimulus timing-dependent plasticity (StTDP), it is important to understand the contribution of mAChRs to in vivo spontaneous activity and plasticity in fusiform cells. In the present study, we blocked mAChRs actions by infusing atropine, a mAChR antagonist, into the DCN fusiform cell layer in normal hearing guinea pigs. Atropine delivery leads to decreased spontaneous firing rates and increased synchronization of fusiform cell spiking activity. Consistent with StTDP alterations observed in tinnitus animals, atropine infusion induced a dominant pattern of inversion of StTDP mean population learning rule from a Hebbian to an anti-Hebbian profile. Units preserving their initial Hebbian learning rules shifted toward more excitatory changes in StTDP, whereas units with initial suppressive learning rules transitioned toward a Hebbian profile. Together, these results implicate muscarinic cholinergic modulation as a factor in controlling in vivo fusiform cell baseline activity and plasticity, suggesting a central role in the maladaptive plasticity associated with tinnitus pathology.NEW & NOTEWORTHY This study is the first to use a novel method of atropine infusion directly into the fusiform cell layer of the dorsal cochlear nucleus coupled with simultaneous recordings of neural activity to clarify the contribution of muscarinic acetylcholine receptors (mAChRs) to in vivo fusiform cell baseline activity and auditory-somatosensory plasticity. We have determined that blocking the mAChRs increases the synchronization of spiking activity across the fusiform cell population and induces a dominant pattern of inversion in their stimulus timing-dependent plasticity. These modifications are consistent with similar changes established in previous tinnitus studies, suggesting that mAChRs might have a critical contribution in mediating the maladaptive alterations associated with tinnitus pathology. Blocking mAChRs also resulted in decreased fusiform cell spontaneous firing rates, which is in contrast with their tinnitus hyperactivity, suggesting that changes in the interactions between the cholinergic and GABAergic systems might also be an underlying factor in tinnitus pathology.

Keywords: dorsal cochlear nucleus; mAChR; synaptic plasticity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Atropine / pharmacology
  • Cochlear Nerve / physiology
  • Cochlear Nucleus / cytology*
  • Drug Delivery Systems
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory, Brain Stem / physiology
  • Face / physiology
  • Guinea Pigs
  • Muscarinic Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Neuronal Plasticity / drug effects
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Receptors, Muscarinic / metabolism*
  • Time Factors


  • Muscarinic Antagonists
  • Receptors, Muscarinic
  • Atropine