Changes in Properties of Auditory Nerve Synapses following Conductive Hearing Loss

J Neurosci. 2017 Jan 11;37(2):323-332. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0523-16.2016.


Auditory activity plays an important role in the development of the auditory system. Decreased activity can result from conductive hearing loss (CHL) associated with otitis media, which may lead to long-term perceptual deficits. The effects of CHL have been mainly studied at later stages of the auditory pathway, but early stages remain less examined. However, changes in early stages could be important because they would affect how information about sounds is conveyed to higher-order areas for further processing and localization. We examined the effects of CHL at auditory nerve synapses onto bushy cells in the mouse anteroventral cochlear nucleus following occlusion of the ear canal. These synapses, called endbulbs of Held, normally show strong depression in voltage-clamp recordings in brain slices. After 1 week of CHL, endbulbs showed even greater depression, reflecting higher release probability. We observed no differences in quantal size between control and occluded mice. We confirmed these observations using mean-variance analysis and the integration method, which also revealed that the number of release sites decreased after occlusion. Consistent with this, synaptic puncta immunopositive for VGLUT1 decreased in area after occlusion. The level of depression and number of release sites both showed recovery after returning to normal conditions. Finally, bushy cells fired fewer action potentials in response to evoked synaptic activity after occlusion, likely because of increased depression and decreased input resistance. These effects appear to reflect a homeostatic, adaptive response of auditory nerve synapses to reduced activity. These effects may have important implications for perceptual changes following CHL.

Significance statement: Normal hearing is important to everyday life, but abnormal auditory experience during development can lead to processing disorders. For example, otitis media reduces sound to the ear, which can cause long-lasting deficits in language skills and verbal production, but the location of the problem is unknown. Here, we show that occluding the ear causes synapses at the very first stage of the auditory pathway to modify their properties, by decreasing in size and increasing the likelihood of releasing neurotransmitter. This causes synapses to deplete faster, which reduces fidelity at central targets of the auditory nerve, which could affect perception. Temporary hearing loss could cause similar changes at later stages of the auditory pathway, which could contribute to disorders in behavior.

Keywords: conductive hearing loss; endbulbs of Held; release probability; release sites; synaptic transmission.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods
  • Animals
  • Auditory Pathways / growth & development
  • Auditory Pathways / physiopathology*
  • Brain Stem / growth & development
  • Brain Stem / physiopathology*
  • Cochlear Nerve / growth & development
  • Cochlear Nerve / physiopathology*
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory, Brain Stem / physiology*
  • Female
  • Hearing Loss, Conductive / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred CBA