Acetylcholine (ACh) is a potent neuromodulator capable of modifying patterns of acoustic information flow. In auditory cortex, cholinergic systems have been shown to increase salience/gain while suppressing extraneous information. However, the mechanism by which cholinergic circuits shape signal processing in the auditory thalamus (medial geniculate body, MGB) is poorly understood. The present study, in male Fischer Brown Norway rats, seeks to determine the location and function of presynaptic neuronal nicotinic ACh receptors (nAChRs) at the major inputs to MGB and characterize how nAChRs change during aging. electrophysiological/optogenetic methods were used to examine responses of MGB neurons after activation of nAChRs during a paired-pulse paradigm. Presynaptic nAChR activation increased responses evoked by stimulation of excitatory corticothalamic and inhibitory tectothalamic terminals. Conversely, nAChR activation appeared to have little effect on evoked responses from inhibitory thalamic reticular nucleus and excitatory tectothalamic terminals. hybridization data showed nAChR subunit transcripts in GABAergic inferior colliculus neurons and glutamatergic auditory cortical neurons supporting the present slice findings. Responses to nAChR activation at excitatory corticothalamic and inhibitory tectothalamic inputs were diminished by aging. These findings suggest that cholinergic input to the MGB increases the strength of tectothalamic inhibitory projections, potentially improving the signal-to-noise ratio and signal detection while increasing corticothalamic gain, which may facilitate top-down identification of stimulus identity. These mechanisms appear to be affected negatively by aging, potentially diminishing speech perception in noisy environments. Cholinergic inputs to the MGB appear to maximize sensory processing by adjusting both top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in conditions of attention and arousal. The pedunculopontine tegmental nucleus is the source of cholinergic innervation for sensory thalamus and is a critical part of an ascending arousal system that controls the firing mode of thalamic cells based on attentional demand. The present study describes the location and impact of aging on presynaptic neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) within the circuitry of the auditory thalamus (medial geniculate body, MGB). We show that nAChRs are located on ascending inhibitory and descending excitatory presynaptic inputs onto MGB neurons, likely increasing gain selectively and improving temporal clarity. In addition, we show that aging has a deleterious effect on nAChR efficacy. Cholinergic dysfunction at the level of MGB may affect speech understanding negatively in the elderly population.
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