Although cholinergic modulation of the cochlear nucleus (CN) is functionally important, neither its cellular consequences nor the types of receptors conveying it are precisely known. The aim of this work was to characterise the cholinergic effects on giant cells of the CN, using electrophysiology and quantitative polymerase chain reaction. Application of the cholinergic agonist carbachol increased the spontaneous activity of the giant cells; which was partly the consequence of the reduction in a K+ conductance. This effect was mediated via M4 and M3 receptors. Cholinergic modulation also affected the synaptic transmission targeting the giant cells. Excitatory synaptic currents evoked by the stimulation of the superficial and deep regions of the CN were sensitive to cholinergic modulation: the amplitude of the first postsynaptic current was reduced, and the short-term depression was also altered. These changes were mediated via M3 receptors alone and via the combination of M4, M2 and M3 receptors, when the superficial and deep layers, respectively, were activated. Inhibitory synaptic currents evoked from the superficial layer showed short-term depression, but they were unaffected by carbachol. In contrast, inhibitory currents triggered by the activation of the deep parts exhibited no significant short-term depression, but they were highly sensitive to cholinergic activation, which was mediated via M3 receptors. Our results indicate that pre- and postsynaptic muscarinic receptors mediate cholinergic modulation on giant cells. The present findings shed light on the cellular mechanisms of a tonic cholinergic modulation in the CN, which may become particularly important in evoking contralateral excitatory responses under certain pathological conditions.
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