In the mammalian vestibular periphery, electrical activation of the efferent vestibular system (EVS) has two effects on afferent activity: 1) it increases background afferent discharge and 2) decreases afferent sensitivity to rotational stimuli. Although the cellular mechanisms underlying these two contrasting afferent responses remain obscure, we postulated that the reduction in afferent sensitivity was attributed, in part, to the activation of α9- containing nicotinic acetylcholine (ACh) receptors (α9*nAChRs) and small-conductance potassium channels (SK) in vestibular type II hair cells, as demonstrated in the peripheral vestibular system of other vertebrates. To test this hypothesis, we examined the effects of the predominant EVS neurotransmitter ACh on vestibular type II hair cells from wild-type (wt) and α9-subunit nAChR knockout (α9-/-) mice. Immunostaining for choline acetyltransferase revealed there were no obvious gross morphological differences in the peripheral EVS innervation among any of these strains. ACh application onto wt type II hair cells, at resting potentials, produced a fast inward current followed by a slower outward current, resulting in membrane hyperpolarization and decreased membrane resistance. Hyperpolarization and decreased resistance were due to gating of SK channels. Consistent with activation of α9*nAChRs and SK channels, these ACh-sensitive currents were antagonized by the α9*nAChR blocker strychnine and SK blockers apamin and tamapin. Type II hair cells from α9-/- mice, however, failed to respond to ACh at all. These results confirm the critical importance of α9nAChRs in efferent modulation of mammalian type II vestibular hair cells. Application of exogenous ACh reduces electrical impedance, thereby decreasing type II hair cell sensitivity. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Expression of α9 nicotinic subunit was crucial for fast cholinergic modulation of mammalian vestibular type II hair cells. These findings show a multifaceted efferent mechanism for altering hair cell membrane potential and decreasing membrane resistance that should reduce sensitivity to hair bundle displacements.
Keywords: calyx; exocytosis; hair cell; nicotinic receptor; vestibular efferent; α9.