Giant cells of the cochlear nucleus are thought to integrate multimodal sensory inputs and participate in monaural sound source localization. Our aim was to explore the significance of a hyperpolarization-activated current in determining the activity of giant neurones in slices prepared from 10 to 14-day-old rats. When subjected to hyperpolarizing stimuli, giant cells produced a 4-(N-ethyl-N-phenylamino)-1,2-dimethyl-6-(methylamino) pyridinium chloride (ZD7288)-sensitive inward current with a reversal potential and half-activation voltage of -36 and -88 mV, respectively. Consequently, the current was identified as the hyperpolarization-activated non-specific cationic current (Ih). At the resting membrane potential, 3.5% of the maximum Ih conductance was available. Immunohistochemistry experiments suggested that hyperpolarization-activated, cyclic nucleotide-gated, cation non-selective (HCN)1, HCN2, and HCN4 subunits contribute to the assembly of the functional channels. Inhibition of Ih hyperpolarized the membrane by 6 mV and impeded spontaneous firing. The frequencies of spontaneous inhibitory and excitatory postsynaptic currents reaching the giant cell bodies were reduced but no significant change was observed when evoked postsynaptic currents were recorded. Giant cells are affected by biphasic postsynaptic currents consisting of an excitatory and a subsequent inhibitory component. Inhibition of Ih reduced the frequency of these biphasic events by 65% and increased the decay time constants of the inhibitory component. We conclude that Ih adjusts the resting membrane potential, contributes to spontaneous action potential firing, and may participate in the dendritic integration of the synaptic inputs of the giant neurones. Because its amplitude was higher in young than in adult rats, Ih of the giant cells may be especially important during the postnatal maturation of the auditory system.
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