Activation of Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptors Induces Potentiation and Synchronization Within in Vitro Hippocampal Networks

J Neurochem. 2020 May;153(4):468-484. doi: 10.1111/jnc.14938. Epub 2019 Dec 29.


Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) are known to play a role in cognitive functions of the hippocampus, such as memory consolidation. Given that they conduct Ca2+ and are capable of regulating the release of glutamate and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) within the hippocampus, thereby shifting the excitatory-inhibitory ratio, we hypothesized that the activation of nAChRs will result in the potentiation of hippocampal networks and alter synchronization. We used nicotine as a tool to investigate the impact of activation of nAChRs on neuronal network dynamics in primary embryonic rat hippocampal cultures prepared from timed-pregnant Sprague-Dawley rats. We perturbed cultured hippocampal networks with increasing concentrations of bath-applied nicotine and performed network extracellular recordings of action potentials using a microelectrode array. We found that nicotine modulated network dynamics in a concentration-dependent manner; it enhanced firing of action potentials as well as facilitated bursting activity. In addition, we used pharmacological agents to determine the contributions of discrete nAChR subtypes to the observed network dynamics. We found that β4-containing nAChRs are necessary for the observed increases in spiking, bursting, and synchrony, while the activation of α7 nAChRs augments nicotine-mediated network potentiation but is not necessary for its manifestation. We also observed that antagonists of N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors (NMDARs) and group I metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs) partially blocked the effects of nicotine. Furthermore, nicotine exposure promoted autophosphorylation of Ca2+ /calmodulin-dependent kinase II (CaMKII) and serine 831 phosphorylation of the α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid receptor (AMPAR) subunit GluA1. These results suggest that nicotinic receptors induce potentiation and synchronization of hippocampal networks and glutamatergic synaptic transmission. Findings from this work highlight the impact of cholinergic signaling in generating network-wide potentiation in the form of enhanced spiking and bursting dynamics that coincide with molecular correlates of memory such as increased phosphorylation of CaMKII and GluA1. OPEN SCIENCE BADGES: This article has received a badge for *Open Materials* because it provided all relevant information to reproduce the study in the manuscript. More information about the Open Practices badges can be found at

Keywords: in vitro hippocampal networks; micro-electrode arrays; neural network dynamics; nicotine; nicotinic acetylcholine receptors.