Behavioral reflexes can be modified by experience via mechanisms that are largely unknown. Within the circuitry for the vestibuloocular reflex (VOR), neurons in the medial vestibular nucleus (MVN) show adaptive changes in firing rate responses that are correlated with VOR gain (the ratio of evoked eye velocity to input head velocity). Although changes in synaptic strength are typically assumed to underlie gain changes in the VOR, modulation of intrinsic ion channels that dictate firing could also play a role. Little is known, however, about how ion channel function or regulation contributes to firing responses in MVN neurons. This study examined contributions of calcium-dependent currents to firing responses in MVN neurons recorded with whole cell patch electrodes in rodent brain stem slices. Firing responses were remarkably linear over a wide range of firing rates and showed modest spike frequency adaptation. Firing response gain, the ratio of evoked firing rate to input current, was reduced by increasing extracellular calcium and increased either by lowering extracellular calcium or with antagonists to SK- and BK-type calcium-dependent potassium channels and Nand T-type calcium channels. Blockade of SK channels occluded gain increases via N-type calcium channels, while blocking BK channels occluded gain increases via presumed T-type calcium channels, indicating specific coupling of potassium channels and their calcium sources. Selective inhibition of Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent kinase II and broad-spectrum inhibition of phosphatases modulated gain via BK-dependent pathways, indicating that firing responses are tightly regulated. Modulation of firing response gain by phosphorylation provides an attractive mechanism for adaptive control of VOR gain.
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