Activity of CaMKIIa+ dorsal cochlear nucleus neurons are crucial for tinnitus perception but not for tinnitus induction
The dorsal cochlear nucleus (DCN) is a region known to integrate somatosensory and auditory inputs and is identified as a potential key structure in the generation of phantom sound perception, especially noise-induced tinnitus. Yet, how altered homeostatic plasticity of the DCN induces and maintains the sensation of tinnitus is not clear. Here, we chemogenetically decrease activity of a subgroup of DCN neurons, Ca2+/Calmodulin kinase 2α (CaMKIIα) positive DCN neurons, using Gi-coupled human M4 Designer Receptors Exclusively Activated by Designer Drugs (hM4Di DREADDs), to investigate their role in noise-induced tinnitus. Mice were exposed to loud noise (9-11kHz, 90dBSPL, 1h, followed by 2h of silence) and auditory brainstem responses (ABRs) and gap prepulse inhibition of acoustic startle (GPIAS) were recorded two days before and two weeks after noise exposure to identify animals with a significantly decreased inhibition of startle, indicating tinnitus but without permanent hearing loss. Neuronal activity of CaMKIIα+ neurons expressing hM4Di in the DCN was lowered by administration of clozapine-N-oxide (CNO). We found that acutely decreasing firing rate of CaMKIIα+ DCN units decrease tinnitus-like responses (p = 0.038, n = 11 mice), compared to the control group that showed no improvement in GPIAS (control virus; CaMKIIα-YFP + CNO, p = 0.696, n = 7 mice). Extracellular recordings confirmed CNO to decrease unit firing frequency of CaMKIIα-hM4Di+ mice and alter best frequency and tuning width of response to sound. However, these effects were not seen if CNO had been previously administered during the noise exposure (n = 6 experimental and 6 control mice). Our results suggest that CaMKIIα-hM4Di positive cells in the DCN are not crucial for tinnitus induction but play a significant role in maintaining tinnitus perception in mice.