Hyperexcitability of inferior colliculus and acoustic startle reflex with age-related hearing loss
Chronic tinnitus and hyperacusis often develop with age-related hearing loss presumably due to aberrant neural activity in the central auditory system (CAS) induced by cochlear pathologies. However, the full spectrum of physiological changes that occur in the CAS as a result age-related hearing loss are still poorly understood. To address this issue, neurophysiological measures were obtained from the cochlea and the inferior colliculus (IC) of 2, 6 and 12 month old C57BL/6J mice, a mouse model for early age-related hearing loss. Thresholds of the compound action potentials (CAP) in 6 and 12 month old mice were significantly higher than in 2 month old mice. The sound driven and spontaneous firing rates of IC neurons, recorded with 16 channel electrodes, revealed mean IC thresholds of 22.8 ± 6.5 dB (n = 167) at 2 months, 37.9 ± 6.2 dB (n = 132) at 6 months and 47.1 ± 15.3 dB (n = 151) at 12 months of age consistent with the rise in CAP thresholds. The characteristic frequencies (CF) of IC neurons ranged from 3 to 32 kHz in 2 month old mice; the upper CF ranged decreased to 26 kHz and 16 kHz in 6 and 12 month old mice respectively. The percentage of IC neurons with CFs between 8 and 12 kHz increased from 36.5% in 2 month old mice, to 48.8% and 76.2% in 6 and 12 month old mice, respectively, suggesting a downshift of IC CFs due to the high-frequency hearing loss. The average spontaneous firing rate (SFRs) of all recorded neurons in 2 month old mice was 3.2 ± 2.5 Hz (n = 167). For 6 and 12 month old mice, the SFRs of low CF neurons (<8 kHz) was maintained at 3–6 spikes/s; whereas SFRs of IC neurons with CFs > 8 kHz increased to 13.0 ± 15.4 (n = 68) Hz at 6 months of age and then declined to 4.8 ± 7.4 (n = 110) spikes/s at 12 months of age. In addition, sound-evoked activity at suprathreshold levels at 6 months of age was much higher than at 2 and 12 months of age. To evaluate the behavioral consequences of sound evoked hyperactivity in the IC, the amplitude of the acoustic startle reflex was measured at 4, 8 and 16 kHz using narrow band noise bursts. Acoustic startle reflex amplitudes in 6 and 12 month old mice (n = 4) were significantly larger than 2 month old mice (n = 4) at 4 and 8 kHz, but not 16 kHz. The enhanced reflex amplitudes suggest that high-intensity, low-frequency sounds are perceived as louder than normal in 6 and 12 month old mice compared to 2 month olds. The increased spontaneous activity, particularly at 6 months, may be related to tinnitus whereas the increase in sound-evoked activity and startle reflex amplitudes may be related to hyperacusis.