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1.  Tracking the Molecular Evolution of Calcium Permeability in a Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor 
Molecular Biology and Evolution  2014;31(12):3250-3265.
Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are a family of ligand-gated nonselective cationic channels that participate in fundamental physiological processes at both the central and the peripheral nervous system. The extent of calcium entry through ligand-gated ion channels defines their distinct functions. The α9α10 nicotinic cholinergic receptor, expressed in cochlear hair cells, is a peculiar member of the family as it shows differences in the extent of calcium permeability across species. In particular, mammalian α9α10 receptors are among the ligand-gated ion channels which exhibit the highest calcium selectivity. This acquired differential property provides the unique opportunity of studying how protein function was shaped along evolutionary history, by tracking its evolutionary record and experimentally defining the amino acid changes involved. We have applied a molecular evolution approach of ancestral sequence reconstruction, together with molecular dynamics simulations and an evolutionary-based mutagenesis strategy, in order to trace the molecular events that yielded a high calcium permeable nicotinic α9α10 mammalian receptor. Only three specific amino acid substitutions in the α9 subunit were directly involved. These are located at the extracellular vestibule and at the exit of the channel pore and not at the transmembrane region 2 of the protein as previously thought. Moreover, we show that these three critical substitutions only increase calcium permeability in the context of the mammalian but not the avian receptor, stressing the relevance of overall protein structure on defining functional properties. These results highlight the importance of tracking evolutionarily acquired changes in protein sequence underlying fundamental functional properties of ligand-gated ion channels.
PMCID: PMC4245820  PMID: 25193338
nicotinic receptors; calcium permeability; molecular evolution; hearing
2.  Activation of Presynaptic GABAB(1a,2) Receptors Inhibits Synaptic Transmission at Mammalian Inhibitory Cholinergic Olivocochlear–Hair Cell Synapses 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2013;33(39):15477-15487.
The synapse between olivocochlear (OC) neurons and cochlear mechanosensory hair cells is cholinergic, fast, and inhibitory. The inhibitory sign of this cholinergic synapse is accounted for by the activation of Ca2+-permeable postsynaptic α9α10 nicotinic receptors coupled to the opening of hyperpolarizing Ca2+-activated small-conductance type 2 (SK2)K+ channels. Acetylcholine (ACh) release at this synapse is supported by both P/Q- and N-type voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCCs). Although the OC synapse is cholinergic, an abundant OC GABA innervation is present along the mammalian cochlea. The role of this neurotransmitter at the OC efferent innervation, however, is for the most part unknown. We show that GABA fails to evoke fast postsynaptic inhibitory currents in apical developing inner and outer hair cells. However, electrical stimulation of OC efferent fibers activates presynaptic GABAB(1a,2) receptors [GABAB(1a,2)Rs] that downregulate the amount of ACh released at the OC–hair cell synapse, by inhibiting P/Q-type VGCCs. We confirmed the expression of GABABRs at OC terminals contacting the hair cells by coimmunostaining for GFP and synaptophysin in transgenic mice expressing GABAB1–GFP fusion proteins. Moreover, coimmunostaining with antibodies against the GABA synthetic enzyme glutamic acid decarboxylase and synaptophysin support the idea that GABA is directly synthesized at OC terminals contacting the hair cells during development. Thus, we demonstrate for the first time a physiological role for GABA in cochlear synaptic function. In addition, our data suggest that the GABAB1a isoform selectively inhibits release at efferent cholinergic synapses.
PMCID: PMC3782624  PMID: 24068816
3.  Short-term plasticity and modulation of synaptic transmission at mammalian inhibitory cholinergic olivocochlear synapses 
The organ of Corti, the mammalian sensory epithelium of the inner ear, has two types of mechanoreceptor cells, inner hair cells (IHCs) and outer hair cells (OHCs). In this sensory epithelium, vibrations produced by sound waves are transformed into electrical signals. When depolarized by incoming sounds, IHCs release glutamate and activate auditory nerve fibers innervating them and OHCs, by virtue of their electromotile property, increase the amplification and fine tuning of sound signals. The medial olivocochlear (MOC) system, an efferent feedback system, inhibits OHC activity and thereby reduces the sensitivity and sharp tuning of cochlear afferent fibers. During neonatal development, IHCs fire Ca2+ action potentials which evoke glutamate release promoting activity in the immature auditory system in the absence of sensory stimuli. During this period, MOC fibers also innervate IHCs and are thought to modulate their firing rate. Both the MOC-OHC and the MOC-IHC synapses are cholinergic, fast and inhibitory and mediated by the α9α10 nicotinic cholinergic receptor (nAChR) coupled to the activation of calcium-activated potassium channels that hyperpolarize the hair cells. In this review we discuss the biophysical, functional and molecular data which demonstrate that at the synapses between MOC efferent fibers and cochlear hair cells, modulation of transmitter release as well as short term synaptic plasticity mechanisms, operating both at the presynaptic terminal and at the postsynaptic hair-cell, determine the efficacy of these synapses and shape the hair cell response pattern.
PMCID: PMC4251319  PMID: 25520631
medial olivocochlear system; efferent innervation; cochlear hair cells; synaptic transmission; calcium channels; calcium-activated potassium channels; GABAB receptors; short-term synaptic plasticity
4.  The Efferent Medial Olivocochlear-Hair Cell Synapse 
Journal of Physiology, Paris  2011;106(1-2):47-56.
Amplification of incoming sounds in the inner ear is modulated by an efferent pathway which travels back from the brain all the way to the cochlea. The medial olivocochlear system makes synaptic contacts with hair cells, where the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is released. Synaptic transmission is mediated by a unique nicotinic cholinergic receptor composed of α9 and α10 subunits, which is highly Ca2+ permeable and is coupled to a Ca2+-activated SK potassium channel. Thus, hyperpolarization of hair cells follows efferent fiber activation. In this work we review the literature that has enlightened our knowledge concerning the intimacies of this synapse.
PMCID: PMC3213294  PMID: 21762779
hair cells; nicotinic receptors; alpha9alpha10 nicotinic receptors; synaptic plasticity; prestin; cochlea; SK channels
5.  Short term synaptic plasticity regulates the level of olivocochlear inhibition to auditory hair cells 
In the mammalian inner ear, the gain control of auditory inputs is exerted by medial olivocochlear (MOC) neurons that innervate cochlear outer hair cells (OHCs). OHCs mechanically amplify the incoming sound waves by virtue of their electromotile properties while the MOC system reduces the gain of auditory inputs by inhibiting OHCs function. How this process is orchestrated at the synaptic level remains unknown. In the present study, MOC firing was evoked by electrical stimulation in an isolated mouse cochlear preparation, while OHCs postsynaptic responses were monitored by whole-cell recordings. These recordings confirmed that electrically evoked inhibitory postsynaptic currents (eIPSCs) are mediated solely by α9α10 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) functionally coupled to calcium-activated SK2 channels. Synaptic release occurred with low probability when MOC-OHC synapses were stimulated at 1Hz. However, as the stimulation frequency was raised, the reliability of release increased due to presynaptic facilitation. In addition, the relatively slow decay of eIPSCs gave rise to temporal summation at stimulation frequencies above 10 Hz. The combined effect of facilitation and summation resulted in a frequency-dependent increase in the average amplitude of inhibitory currents in OHCs. Thus, we have demonstrated that short-term plasticity is responsible for shaping MOC inhibition and, therefore, encodes the transfer function from efferent firing frequency to the gain of the cochlear amplifier.
PMCID: PMC3224807  PMID: 21994392
short-term synaptic plasticity; gain control; cochlea; outer hair cells; efferent innervation
6.  Ca2+ and Ca2+-activated K+ channels that support and modulate transmitter release at the olivocochlear efferent-inner hair cell synapse 
In the mammalian auditory system, the synapse between efferent olivocochlear (OC) neurons and sensory cochlear hair cells is cholinergic, fast and inhibitory. This efferent synapse is mediated by the nicotinic α9α10 receptor coupled to the activation of SK2 Ca2+-activated K+ channels that hyperpolarize the cell. So far, the ion channels that support and/or modulate neurotransmitter release from the OC terminals remain unknown. To identify these channels, we used an isolated mouse cochlear preparation and monitored transmitter release from the efferent synaptic terminals in inner hair cells (IHCs) voltage-clamped in the whole-cell recording configuration. Acetylcholine (ACh) release was evoked by electrically stimulating the efferent fibers that make axosomatic contacts with IHCs before the onset of hearing. Using the specific antagonists for P/Q-and N-type voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCCs), ω-agatoxin IVA and ω-conotoxin GVIA, respectively, we show that Ca2+ entering through both types of VGCCs support the release process at this synapse. Interestingly, we found that Ca2+ entering through the dihydropiridine-sensitive L-type VGCCs exerts a negative control on transmitter release. Moreover, using immunostaining techniques combined with electrophysiology and pharmacology, we show that BK Ca2+-activated K+ channels are transiently expressed at the OC efferent terminals contacting IHCs and that their activity modulates the release process at this synapse. The effects of dihydropiridines combined with iberiotoxin, a specific BK channel antagonist, strongly suggest that L-type VGCCs negatively regulate the release of ACh by fueling BK channels which are known to curtail the duration of the terminal action potential in several types of neurons.
PMCID: PMC2963083  PMID: 20826678
Synaptic transmission; Calcium channels; BK channels; cochlea; hair cells; efferent
7.  The Nicotinic Receptor of Cochlear Hair Cells: A Possible Pharmacotherapeutic Target? 
Biochemical pharmacology  2009;78(7):712-719.
Mechanosensory hair cells of the organ of Corti transmit information regarding sound to the central nervous system by way of peripheral afferent neurons. In return, the central nervous system provides feedback and modulates the afferent stream of information through efferent neurons. The medial olivocochlear efferent system makes direct synaptic contacts with outer hair cells and inhibits amplification brought about by the active mechanical process inherent to these cells. This feedback system offers the potential to improve the detection of signals in background noise, to selectively attend to particular signals, and to protect the periphery from damage caused by overly loud sounds. Acetylcholine released at the synapse between efferent terminals and outer hair cells activates a peculiar nicotinic cholinergic receptor subtype, the α9α10 receptor. At present no pharmacotherapeutic approaches have been designed that target this cholinergic receptor to treat pathologies of the auditory system. The potential use of α9α10 selective drugs in conditions such as noise-induced hearing loss, tinnitus and auditory processing disorders is discussed.
PMCID: PMC2737545  PMID: 19481062
nicotinic cholinergic receptors; noise trauma; cochlea; tinnitus; efferent feedback
8.  Constitutive Expression of the α10 Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor Subunit Fails to Maintain Cholinergic Responses in Inner Hair Cells After the Onset of Hearing 
Efferent inhibition of cochlear hair cells is mediated by α9α10 nicotinic cholinergic receptors (nAChRs) functionally coupled to calcium-activated, small conductance (SK2) potassium channels. Before the onset of hearing, efferent fibers transiently make functional cholinergic synapses with inner hair cells (IHCs). The retraction of these fibers after the onset of hearing correlates with the cessation of transcription of the Chrna10 (but not the Chrna9) gene in IHCs. To further analyze this developmental change, we generated a transgenic mice whose IHCs constitutively express α10 into adulthood by expressing the α10 cDNA under the control of the Pou4f3 gene promoter. In situ hybridization showed that the α10 mRNA is expressed in IHCs of 8-week-old transgenic mice, but not in wild-type mice. Moreover, this mRNA is translated into a functional protein, since IHCs from P8-P10 α10 transgenic mice backcrossed to a Chrna10−/− background (whose IHCs have no cholinergic function) displayed normal synaptic and acetylcholine (ACh)-evoked currents in patch-clamp recordings. Thus, the α10 transgene restored nAChR function. However, in the α10 transgenic mice, no synaptic or ACh-evoked currents were observed in P16-18 IHCs, indicating developmental down-regulation of functional nAChRs after the onset of hearing, as normally observed in wild-type mice. The lack of functional ACh currents correlated with the lack of SK2 currents. These results indicate that multiple features of the efferent postsynaptic complex to IHCs, in addition to the nAChR subunits, are down-regulated in synchrony after the onset of hearing, leading to lack of responses to ACh.
PMCID: PMC3084387  PMID: 19452222
nicotinic cholinergic receptors; efferent medial olivocochlear; SK2 channel; acetylcholine; transgenic mice
9.  Electrical Properties and Functional Expression of Ionic Channels in Cochlear Inner Hair Cells of Mice Lacking the α10 Nicotinic Cholinergic Receptor Subunit 
Cochlear inner hair cells (IHCs) release neurotransmitter onto afferent auditory nerve fibers in response to sound stimulation. During early development, synaptic transmission is triggered by spontaneous Ca2+ spikes which are modulated by an efferent cholinergic innervation to IHCs. This synapse is inhibitory and mediated by the α9α10 nicotinic cholinergic receptor (nAChR). After the onset of hearing, large-conductance Ca2+-activated K+ channels are acquired and both the spiking activity and the efferent innervation disappear from IHCs. In this work, we studied the developmental changes in the membrane properties of cochlear IHCs from α10 nAChR gene (Chrna10) “knockout” mice. Electrophysiological properties of IHCs were studied by whole-cell recordings in acutely excised apical turns of the organ of Corti from developing mice. Neither the spiking activity nor the developmental functional expression of voltage-gated and/or calcium-sensitive K+ channels is altered in the absence of the α10 nAChR subunit. The present results show that the α10 nAChR subunit is not essential for the correct establishment of the intrinsic electrical properties of IHCs during development.
PMCID: PMC2674205  PMID: 19252947
calcium spikes; voltage-gated K+ channels; calcium-sensitive K+ channels; cholinergic; development; auditory
10.  A Point Mutation in the Hair Cell Nicotinic Cholinergic Receptor Prolongs Cochlear Inhibition and Enhances Noise Protection 
PLoS Biology  2009;7(1):e1000018.
The transduction of sound in the auditory periphery, the cochlea, is inhibited by efferent cholinergic neurons projecting from the brainstem and synapsing directly on mechanosensory hair cells. One fundamental question in auditory neuroscience is what role(s) this feedback plays in our ability to hear. In the present study, we have engineered a genetically modified mouse model in which the magnitude and duration of efferent cholinergic effects are increased, and we assess the consequences of this manipulation on cochlear function. We generated the Chrna9L9′T line of knockin mice with a threonine for leucine change (L9′T) at position 9′ of the second transmembrane domain of the α9 nicotinic cholinergic subunit, rendering α9-containing receptors that were hypersensitive to acetylcholine and had slower desensitization kinetics. The Chrna9L9′T allele produced a 3-fold prolongation of efferent synaptic currents in vitro. In vivo, Chrna9L9′T mice had baseline elevation of cochlear thresholds and efferent-mediated inhibition of cochlear responses was dramatically enhanced and lengthened: both effects were reversed by strychnine blockade of the α9α10 hair cell nicotinic receptor. Importantly, relative to their wild-type littermates, Chrna9L9′T/L9′T mice showed less permanent hearing loss following exposure to intense noise. Thus, a point mutation designed to alter α9α10 receptor gating has provided an animal model in which not only is efferent inhibition more powerful, but also one in which sound-induced hearing loss can be restrained, indicating the ability of efferent feedback to ameliorate sound trauma.
Author Summary
Nicotinic cholinergic receptors are essential to higher order brain function. Structurally, these operate through a myriad of ligand-gated pentameric arrangements of different homologous subunits. Here, we report progress in understanding the structural properties of a neuronal nicotinic receptor at the synapse. Receptors assembled from two nicotinic cholinergic subunits (α9 and α10) serve exclusively at the synapse between central nervous system descending fibers and cochlear hair cells. This enabled us to show direct causality between a point mutation of the α9 subunit, and predicted alterations in the synaptic strength in sensory hair cells of the cochlea of α9 point mutant mice. Furthermore, this single mutation results in profound enhancement of central nervous system feedback to the cochlea. And finally, as a consequence, mutant mice possessing this altered receptor have substantially improved resistance to traumatic sound. Thus, central neuronal feedback on cochlear hair cells provides an opportunity to define one specific role that nicotinic receptors can play in the nervous system, enabling study from biophysical to behavioral levels and promoting a target for the prevention of noise-induced hearing loss.
A point mutation in the cochlear hair cell nicotinic cholinergic receptor leads to strengthened central nervous system feedback to the cochlea and enhances protection from noise-induced hearing loss.
PMCID: PMC2628405  PMID: 19166271
11.  Ryanodine is a Positive Modulator of Acetylcholine Receptor Gating in Cochlear Hair Cells 
The efferent synaptic specialization of hair cells includes a near-membrane synaptic cistern, whose presence suggests a role for internal calcium stores in cholinergic inhibition. Calcium release channels from internal stores include ‘ryanodine receptors’, whose participation is usually demonstrated by sensitivity to the eponymous plant alkaloid, ryanodine. However, use of this and other store-active compounds on hair cells could be confounded by the unusual pharmacology of the α9α10-containing hair cell nicotinic cholinergic receptor (nAChR), which has been shown to be antagonized by a broad spectrum of compounds. Surprisingly, we found that ryanodine, rather than antagonizing, is a positive modulator of the α9α10 nAChR expressed in Xenopus oocytes, the first such compound to be found. The effect of ryanodine was to increase the apparent affinity and efficacy for acetylcholine (ACh). Correspondingly, ACh-evoked currents through the isolated cholinergic receptors of inner hair cells in excised mouse cochleas were approximately doubled by 200 μM ryanodine, a concentration that inhibits gating of the ryanodine receptor itself. This unusual positive modulation was not unique to the mammalian receptor. The response to ACh of chicken ‘short’ hair cells likewise was enhanced in the presence of 100 μM ryanodine. This facilitatory effect on current through the AChR could enhance brief (∼1 s) activation of associated calcium-dependent K+ (SK) channels in both chicken short hair cells and rat outer hair cells. This novel effect of ryanodine provides new opportunities for the design of compounds that potentiate α9α10-mediated responses and for potential inner ear therapeutics based on this interaction.
PMCID: PMC2538347  PMID: 17647061
ryanodine; nicotinic receptors; α9α10 receptors; ion channels; acetylcholine; efferent system
12.  Linopirdine Blocks α9α10-Containing Nicotinic Cholinergic Receptors of Cochlear Hair Cells 
Studies of the electrophysiological response to acetylcholine (ACh) in mammalian outer hair cells (OHCs) are hindered by the presence of a large potassium current, IK,n, most likely mediated by channels containing the KCNQ4 subunit. Since IK,n can be blocked by linopirdine, cholinergic effects might be better revealed in the presence of this compound. The aim of the present work was to study the effects of linopirdine on the ACh-evoked responses through α9α10-containing native and recombinant nicotinic cholinergic receptors. Responses to ACh were blocked by linopirdine in both OHCs and inner hair cells (IHCs) of rats at postnatal days 21–27 (OHCs) and 9–11 (IHCs). In addition, linopirdine blocked responses of recombinant α9α10 nicotinic cholinergic receptors (nAChRs) in a concentration-dependent manner with an IC50 of 5.2 μM. Block by linopirdine was readily reversible, voltage independent, and surmountable at high concentrations of ACh, thus suggestive of a competitive type of interaction with the receptor. The present results contribute to the pharmacological characterization of α9α10-containing nicotinic receptors and indicate that linopirdine should be used with caution when analyzing the cholinergic sensitivity of cochlear hair cells.
PMCID: PMC2504548  PMID: 15492885
nicotinic receptors; linopirdine; ion channels; acetylcholine; K+ channels

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